Bully on the Bench?

Abrasive encounters with some Hispanics, cash-and-carry court appointments coupled with hefty campaign contributions. Critics wonder if Pat Shelton's speedy dockets are outrunning justice.

The proceeding before Judge Kent Ellis two weeks ago was odd even by the standards of the Harris County courts complex, where idiosyncratic judges flourish like toads in summer rain and almost every bizarre twist of the judicial process that can happen already has.

There was fellow juvenile Judge Patrick Scott Shelton lumbering out of the witness box to show a jury how the six-foot, 220-pound jurist had stripped off his judicial robe like a cape in a reverse Superman act. Then he described how he came flying down from his bench to help restrain a 15-year-old Latino youth who had just assaulted a bailiff in his own court several weeks earlier.

To demonstrate his feat of derring-do, the balding, round-faced Shelton stepped behind prosecutor Kris Moore and thrust his hands beneath her armpits. He pulled back the shoulders of the thin, scholarly-looking woman, pinning her arms. His court personnel and several attorneys close to Shelton testified the judge had saved the day on May 4 by immobilizing Sergio Reyes after the husky teen punched bailiff Mark Whited in the chest.

Yes, Shelton aw-shucked to jurors, it wasn't even the first time he'd faced a rebelling defendant. As a Harris County prosecutor more than a decade ago, he chased a felon who fled the courtroom. Shelton caught that fugitive, albeit with a little help from bystanders.

That's the way the 48-year-old judge likes to be seen, as a defender of law and order. The jury convicted Reyes of assaulting the bailiff, but the verdict is still out on some of Shelton's own offbeat court procedures.

The youth's mother and a court translator testified that Shelton's sarcastic baiting of the mother about her Mexican roots and lack of English partially precipitated the son's outburst in court.

The Mexican American Bar Association questions whether the judge is using his bench to insult Latinos and wage a personal war against Hispanic heritage.

Criticism extends far beyond cultural arenas, into Shelton's operation of a sort of budget legal service out of his courtroom. Families, even those who may be eligible for free representation, have been told to show up in court with $150 in cash to pay for quick legal service from attorneys Shelton has standing by -- lawyers who have helped fatten his own campaign coffers.

Shelton credits what he calls the streamlining of his court with intercepting delinquents at an early stage and reducing youth crime. But that arrangement is decried by another juvenile law judge and assorted legal scholars, one of whom calls it "outrageous." His critics say his court is hell-bent on speed at the expense of justice.

Shelton holds forth -- or rather fort -- in a courtroom he has adorned with $1,800 worth of battle flags commemorating the Republic of Texas's victory over Mexico.

"Come and Take It," taunts one of the flags to a long-vanished army of Mexican soldiers. "Victory or Death" is emblazoned on another. In a decorative display of weirdness, a gigantic piece of driftwood lifts its twisted spikes from the center of the table in Shelton's courtroom where attorneys sit facing the judge's bench.

His route to the judgeship was as offbeat as his decorations. The Kermit native got a masters in education in 1975 and taught at the State School for the Retarded and the Spring Branch Independent School District, where he was a junior high school coach. He graduated from the University of Houston law school in 1983. Shelton was a Harris County assistant district attorney for three years before going into private practice with traffic ticket king David Sprecher.

Shelton beat two other unknowns in the 1994 GOP primary with the help of conservative activist Steven Hotze's endorsement. Then Shelton ousted appointed Democrat incumbent Ramona John as Republicans swept the county's contested judicial races.

As a prosecutor in 1985, Shelton gained a theft conviction against a black City of Houston employee, Edgar Arnold. An appeals court overturned the verdict and ordered a new trial. Appellate justices ruled that Shelton had wrongfully struck seven blacks and one Hispanic from the jury pool to create an all-white jury. Asked about it recently, the judge could not recall the case, although he allowed that "the name sounds familiar."

And to critics, the assault case of Sergio Reyes carried familiar overtones about Shelton's unorthodox court procedures.

Carlos Conde is a disabled former merchant seaman who contracts with the county to provide translator services in the courts. Alone among Shelton's court personnel, the thin, nervous Conde gave a startlingly different account of the judge's behavior surrounding the assault by defendant Reyes against bailiff Mark Whited. Reyes was before the judge on charges stemming from his scuffle with security guards during his arrest for shoplifting. Conde's version of the later events in Shelton's court:

The judge inflamed the situation by asking the boy's mother, Marina, a series of insulting questions, including an incredulous sneer when he told her: "You've been in this country 20 years and you can't speak English?" Shelton inquired about where she was from. When she said Piedras Negras, Coahuila, he whipped out an atlas and began studying it, then said, "but that's nothing but desert." After a few more exchanges between the mother and judge, her son shouted, "This is my case. Leave my mother alone!"

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