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.

"Now how in the heck can that be considered a racist question?"
Verifying claims against Shelton is difficult because, unlike those of other juvenile judges in the county, Shelton's interviews with families from his bench are rarely taken down by a court reporter. The judge is also insulated by a cushion of court staffers and lawyers who depend on his favor for their livings.

A source familiar with Shelton's court credits the judge with good intentions but admits he's a handful.

"The guy is weird enough, and a lot of the things that he comes up with are outlandish. There's a number of things he does that make life around here just miserable.

"But I can tell you, I give my word, he's well intended. He doesn't do this to hurt anybody."

Asked about any biases by Shelton, this source laughs. "It's not with just Hispanic parents. He can be a very annoying person. I think he's 'ambi-unfair,' an equal-opportunity annoying person. I don't know that it has as much to do with Hispanics as much as it does that his sense of humor is just not appreciated by that many people."

Another courts observer found little to laugh about in Shelton's behavior during a proceeding to terminate parental rights.

"The mother asked for a court-appointed attorney, and the answer he gave her was he just laughed at her. He didn't say yes, or no, but just continued on. Whether she deserved an attorney or not, she deserved an answer," recalls the source. "And that wasn't right."

The Mexican-American bar is taking action on complaints about Shelton's conduct in court. President-elect Salazar says MABA's civil rights committee has invited Shelton to appear before it and explain his actions. Meanwhile, the group is also preparing a complaint to the state's judicial conduct commission.

However, more questions linger over Shelton's court operations. The District Attorney's Office last week said it will be looking into allegations about the judge's odd method of appointing attorneys to represent defendants in his court.

It's morning docket call in Shelton's 313th District Court, a week after the Reyes incident. All three juvenile courts are crowded, but Shelton's seems more of a circus than the others. Out in the hallways, lawyers introduce themselves to families and huddle to chew over their cases.

Youths are checked in by probation officers and clerks, then summoned to the bench along with their parents. A Hispanic couple and son take their turn before Shelton and are quickly processed. The judge issues an order appointing a lawyer for the family in front of him. As Shelton often does, he selects his close friend and former colleague at the District Attorney's Office, John Phillips, a defense attorney. Phillips and his law partner, Glenn Devlin, just happened to be two of the men in the court who helped wrestle Sergio Reyes to the ground during the altercation.

After introducing the attorney, the judge tells the family, "You go outside, and I'm going to have him give you folks legal advice."

Up to this point, the process is much like those in other courts in the county. But these families, when they get notice of their day in court, also get notified to bring along $150 in cash if they do not have a lawyer.

Phillips explains that the judge often asks parents, "Do you have your money today?" If they say yes, he says, "Go out and start working on your case."

Under this system, the lawyers pocket the cash or -- more infrequently -- checks out in the hallway while dispensing "legal advice" to their instant clients. Because cash can't bounce, a participant in the system says it is the favored mode of payment.

The Reyes assault trial inadvertently revealed this novel -- and potentially controversial -- facet of Shelton's court operation. Marina Reyes was qualified as an indigent, but she says she followed instructions and scraped together $90 in cash to pay a court-appointed attorney at her appearance before Shelton.

Shelton claims poor families like his method of appointment because it gets them lawyers at a bargain-basement rate. Other sources say many of the families, particularly the Spanish-speaking respondents, are under the impression the judge has ordered them to take a particular attorney.

The judge also links the eventual processing of a case to the repayment of legal fees by the family. His rather distinctive "Motion for the Appointment of an Attorney" order reads this way: "I understand that if I am unable to hire an attorney or pay the $150 per court appearance to an appointed lawyer, that the judge will appoint an attorney. All attorney fee costs will be taxed as costs at the end of the case as a condition of probation or parole."

Shelton dismisses questions about the propriety of the cash "appointments" as much ado about nothing. According to the judge, they represent less than 10 percent of the hundreds of cases that come before him monthly.

Families often come to their first setting in juvenile court without an attorney, forcing the judge to reset the case and slowing down the processing of the matter. According to Harris County Juvenile Probation Director Elmer Bailey, Shelton hit on the system as a way to get the case disposed of at that first court appearance.

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