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.

"You're fucking crazy if you try to lock me up," the youth shouted at the judge. The mother also became hysterical and began sobbing. "If you lock him up, you'll have to lock me up," she said.

That account by Conde was disputed by the judge and his court associates, who also challenged a witness's version of the altercation. Associates said Shelton played a major role in subduing the teenager and throwing him to the floor. The contradictory witness says the judge did not come down from the bench until the youth was already cuffed and restrained, then Shelton gratuitously shoved him in the back.

Further, after the scuffle ended, Shelton reportedly huffed, "Next time I'll use my gun!"

The Houston Mexican American Bar Association, already concerned by reports of discrimination in Shelton's court, got Hispanic rights activist Frumencio Reyes (no relation to the defendant) to represent the youth in the assault case. "I know what these people were going through, and especially the kid," commented Reyes, after the trial and conviction. "When the judge is questioning Mom about where she's from, what she's doing here, why Mexico, where's your husband, why is he in jail, the kid was getting as upset as the mother.

"Those of us culturally close to Mexico know it is a very serious matter to insult a mother and that it is taken more seriously than if the insult is directed to the person himself. When the insult comes through the mother, we just don't take that sitting down."

Shelton denied much of what was said by defense witnesses. In his own testimony, Shelton described his personality as having "a flat affect," but there was no mistaking his attitude in court that day. His demeanor projected both smugness and a disdain for the questions by the defense attorney.

"I had, in my opinion, a respectful conversation," Shelton recalls of his talk with Marina Reyes, of which no court record was made. "I understand after the kid blew up and there's no defense for the kid, what are you going to do but play the race card? It's really an ethnicity card. What else can you do? You've got no defense."

As for what happens to court workers who do not back up their boss, after the Reyes incident Shelton banned translator Carlos Conde and his assistant from getting assignments in his court. In testimony, Shelton accused the translator of failing to interpret some of the comments of Sergio and Marina Reyes during the courtroom incident. He claimed the ban resulted from that, and was not retaliation for Conde's testimony.

Attorney Reyes and Mexican-American bar president-elect Joel Salazar see something darker and uglier in the judge's courtroom behavior than simple law-and-order fervor: a nativism toward people from south of the border that finds its outlet in sarcastic, demeaning questioning of minority families and children in his court.

According to witnesses, Shelton delights in pulling out an atlas and pinpointing the respondents' home towns in Mexico, ridicules longtime residents if they cannot speak English, often forces youths to lift their shirts to display tattoos, and tells them the first thing he's going to get them is a haircut.

Salazar likens Shelton to a former county criminal court judge, Jimmie Duncan, who was renowned for racially tinged comments in his court. "He was, to a lot of us, an avowed racist," Salazar says of Duncan, "while others defend his conduct as he was just a 'good ol' boy' judge who doesn't mean any harm. To us who are more sophisticated, that's Klannish thinking. I'm not saying Pat Shelton is 100 percent racist, but there is too much smoke for there to be no fire on this."

Former Harris County Juvenile Probation director Teresa Ramirez ran against Shelton in his successful re-election last year. Now she directs the Center for Youth Policy Development at the University of Houston. She claims she started getting complaints about Shelton shortly after he took the bench in 1995.

"People would call and say he badgers Hispanic families, asking them if they can speak English, and he insults them and says they've been here in this country a long time and how come they have not adjusted to the culture. He asks them if they have family outside the United States, and if they do say yes, he threatens to detain the child because he doesn't want the child sent to families outside the jurisdiction, which is really an unfair situation."

Shelton's critics extend beyond former political opponents or Hispanics. Even fellow juvenile court Judge Mary Craft isn't surprised by the complaints against him. "I've heard a lot of that," says Craft. "From a lot of different people. I've heard it from Child Advocate volunteers, I've heard it from other lawyers, from a lot of people. And it's gone on from day one."

Shelton denies he discriminates against anyone and says his questions from the bench are motivated by valid concerns.

"When you're told that somebody says they are going to abscond and flee, and you ask where they're going, and they tell you a country, that is the only question in my mind that's appropriate. 'You're not coming to court? Where are you going?'

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