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Now that virtually the entire Harris County judiciary is Republican, the influence of conservative ministers who deliver key blocks of GOP primary votes has never been stronger. Case in point: a furor raised last week among civil district judges by a Baptist minister. He is upset over routine court action changing names and gender designations for persons who have had sex-change operations and are resuming life as members of the opposite sex.
Pastor Rick Scarborough of First Baptist Church of Pearland alleges that some court approvals of changes of names and sex were being obtained to provide a legal fig leaf for same-sex marriages. He provoked the controversy by firing off a letter and packet of supporting documents to Judge John Devine.
Same-sex marriages are illegal in Texas, but after a sex-change operation, an individual may marry a person of the opposite gender. According to the minister, there is evidence that the good GOP judges were being fooled into granting the orders for persons who had not undergone the required genital alterations and wanted to marry partners of the same sex.
Devine, who originally claimed God had told him to run for office, already was refusing to handle the change orders, routinely transferring them to other courts. He circulated Scarborough's information to other judges. The packet included case analyses indicating which judges were granting the requests for changes, and a letter from transgendered lawyer Phyllis Frye thanking Judge Scott Link for his willingness to process the cases. That effectively put Link on the political hot seat.
How the pastor got Link's private correspondence is unclear, and neither Scarborough nor Link was available for comment. Frye says she may have written the letter but has no idea how the minister got it.
The allegation that the change orders are part of a scheme to obtain fraudulent marriages is apparently unfounded, but it still set off a judicial tap dance. Some judges huddled with conservative political consultant Allen Blakemore concerning the potential campaign fallout from handling the cases in the face of Scarborough's fulminations.
"The judges are kinda exercised about it," reports Blakemore. "The judges look at Scarborough and think, 'Does this mean he's going to be drumming up campaign opposition for people?' "
"I met with Hotze for about two minutes," confirms Brister, "and Hotze's position was the same as most of the judges'. If somebody has been using us to avoid the same-sex marriage ban, everybody's upset about it. But it appears that's not the case, and he's not upset about it."
Brister says the final decision made at the meeting was to assign judicial staff attorney Deborah Selden to research Scarborough's allegations.
"One of the things about name changes is you don't have two parties, just one," says the judge. "And anytime you have a situation where you have one party, sometimes you don't get the whole story."
Brister didn't explain why the civil administrative judge of Harris County felt it necessary to meet with a political figure such as Hotze to discuss judicial operations. The answer may be that Hotze's endorsement is considered crucial in contested primary races. In recent years incumbent judges who earned his wrath have been defeated by challengers backed by the westside allergist. In the current judicial atmosphere, having God on your side is nice, but having Hotze as your co-pilot when flying through political turbulence is better.
Attorney Frye has represented transgendered people in court for two decades and is concerned that the far right is playing politics with her clients' lives.
"I shuddered when you called me," says Frye, "'cause I know this is going to blow up. And I know that judges are going to get scared, and I know that transgendered people are not going to be able to get xxxtheir documents. When they can't get their documents, they can't get a job, and they'll be out on the street."
Frye says she knows of no one who fraudulently obtained a change order for a same-sex marriage. "I don't know of a single judge who will sign without a medical letter to back it up," she says.
Frye figures the only way a same-sex marriage could result from the judge's orders is if the person changing genders is already married.
"The only thing that I can figure where [Scarborough] got this fly up his butt is that I have been encouraging for a long time that if two people are already legally married, and one of them begins to go through the transition, that they stay married." Doctors used to pressure transsexuals to divorce their partners before changing sexes, explains Frye, but there is no legal mechanism to force a couple to divorce. If the union remains intact, says Frye, the result would be a de facto same-sex marriage.
Blakemore says he was not able to verify Scarborough's allegations of same-sex marriage fraud.
"He was making statements like, 'Oh, great, now that we finally get a courthouse full of Republican judges, we're now involved in a conspiracy to set up same-sex marriages,' " recalls Blakemore, who is incredulous that anyone would have such suspicions of rock-ribbed conservatives like Link.