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.

"We've gotten him to stretch it out to two weeks, but before we raised hell, it was like seven to ten days," says Juvenile Probation Director Bailey. "It's this whole speedy justice thing taken to the max."

Because time is too short, Shelton often takes over the role of a juvenile probation officer in interviewing the family.

"He calls them up in front of the bench," says Bailey, "and if you went down and viewed the three courts, his [style] appears very unorthodox. Because he's actually taking testimony from the families for the first time. He's saying, 'Do you have a job? Do you work? What is your income? Can you supervise this kid? Is he smoking dope? Is he coming in late at night? Can you guarantee that he won't get in any more trouble?' "

Shelton does not have that testimony recorded by a court reporter, so it's hard to pin down exactly what goes into the decisions that the judge will make about disposition of the case. But Bailey does not seem concerned by that.

"The other courts are using a more traditional approach, having witnesses," he explains, "and swearing in folks, and doing all kinds of hocus-pocus stuff that just appears more traditional." By contrast, Bailey describes the frenetic scene in Shelton's court as "hulley gulley."

Swearing in, testimony, court transcripts -- they all are apparently outdated in the brave new world of turbo-charged justice Shelton-style. And in the rush to justice, politics has a way of seeping into the process.

The District Attorney's review of Shelton's court centers on allegations that his system of funneling cash-carrying families to particular attorneys may come at a price -- campaign contributions during election season.

In the last few years Shelton has consistently billed more to the county for court-appointed lawyers than his juvenile judge colleagues. In 1998, for example, Shelton spent $440,690 on court-appointed attorneys, while Craft billed $286,854. Ellis was in between, with $393,760.

Within Shelton's court, the lawyers appointed most frequently to cases by the judge also happen to be the attorneys who stand by him at election time with contributions. If those are voluntary contributions, then the setup is not an unusual occurrence in a courts system that allows judges to set up a sort of patronage network with their favorite lawyers.

A source knowledgeable about the cash appointments in Shelton's court says the attorneys most frequently involved have been Phillips, his law partner, Glenn Devlin, Evan Glick, Sid Berger, Brian Fischer, Oliver Sprott and Greg Cotton. On the child protective services side of the judge's docket, which constitutes about 60 percent of his cases, lawyer George Clevenger received the most appointments.

A review of Shelton's campaign reports from mid-1997 through late 1998 shows a predictable correlation between contributions and appointments. Cotton contributed a total of $3,500 to the judge, while Devlin kicked in $9,990, including an in-kind contribution of $4,990 for campaign signs. Phillips made a $5,000 contribution in mid-1998, while Glick gave $2,500 and Berger $2,000. Sprott contributed $10,000, while Clevenger came across with $6,300.

Some of these attorneys seemed to operate almost exclusively in Shelton's court during the same period. For instance, county auditor records for attorney activity from late 1997 through early this year had 515 entries for Clevenger in Shelton's court, as opposed to a total of 42 entries for the attorney in all other Harris County courts. Over the last year and a half, Clevenger was paid $95,742 by the county, with $86,432 coming via assignments in Shelton's court.

Devlin's court-appointed lawyer practice was even more dependent on the 313th. The auditor's office figures showed 456 entries for Devlin and a total payment of $42,008, with only three other entries totaling $250 for any other court.

And all of these amounts are the totals paid by the county for indigent representation. The county does not keep track of the money made through the cash payments from families linked up to their attorneys by Shelton.

Shelton maintains that any qualified lawyer can get appointments in his court and claims he appoints more different lawyers than either Craft or Ellis.

"I don't choose who shows up in court," says the judge. "Any attorney who has a license can practice in the court." According to Shelton, last year 124 different lawyers got appointments in his court. "It shows that the court is open. If somebody shows up in court and tells me they want to do a court appointment, we consider everybody. It is not a closed show."

That statement doesn't quite square with the experience of one attorney, who asked to remain unnamed. When the lawyer approached former Shelton court coordinator Kevin McGee and asked how one could get appointments in the court, the coordinator advised that a $1,000 campaign contribution to the judge would be helpful. A witness in Shelton's court recalls McGee distributing campaign materials in the court area during working hours and soliciting lawyers to participate in fund-raisers for the judge.

The judge replied to those allegations with trademark sarcasm. "You can make up, you can say any outrageous thing you want to," snapped Shelton. "Why not a million dollars? Let's make it really interesting. To me, that is just your typical innuendo kind of crap you hear that is not substantiated by anything. Ask Mr. McGee."

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