Judicial Hunting Season Opens

Months before filing begins for next spring's party primaries, judicial candidates are already jockeying for position, sniffing for blood on the benches and in one case, redecorating their courtroom to religious conservative tastes.

Early action got a boost from a ruling last week by federal Judge John D. Rainey. He ordered Harris County Sheriff Tommy Thomas to pay back wages and attorney fees to a deputy constable who was forced by departmental policy to resign to run against an incumbent constable. District Attorney Johnny Holmes, who had a similar policy banning his prosecutors from challenging incumbent judges, immediately lowered the bar in a memo to his troops.

"If you wish to run for political office, you will still need to notify me of such plans," wrote Holmes. "But absent a factual basis, as opposed to a 'hunch' to believe that your political activities will actually disrupt this office's ability to enforce and prosecute the law, such permission will be granted pro forma."

In recent years many of the GOP judicial candidates have come from the ranks of Holmes's prosecutors. Holmes's policy forced them to resign before running against incumbents. As a result, most prosecutors ran for vacant benches, effectively protecting sitting judges from serious opposition. One of the first to take advantage of the change in policy will likely be Holmes's first assistant Don Stricklin. He's zeroing in on the 337th District Court's wounded duck Jim Barr.

"That being the case, I can go ahead and talk seriously to people about making the run," says Stricklin, who is married to District Judge Debbie Mantooth Stricklin. If he wins, it will create one judicial couple at the expense of another.

Barr, the spouse of district Judge Jeannine Barr, was removed from his bench 17 months ago by the Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct for ordering the jailing of a deputy and for making lewd remarks to women prosecutors in his court. Barr is appealing the ouster through the state courts, while collecting $237,000 in salary from the county and state for doing nothing. He announced two weeks ago he plans to run for re-election to demonstrate that the people, rather than the judicial commission, have the right to pick their judges.

Since Barr's duties are being handled by a visiting judge, taxpayers have shelled out nearly a half-million dollars in judicial salaries for that court. Meanwhile, Barr awaits final judgment by the Texas Supreme Court.

Holmes expressed frustration that money is wasted while the high court takes its time considering the case.

"I cannot for the life of me understand how anyone can justify that," says the district attorney. "Surely the court in maintaining its own docket can prioritize things. This isn't any secret thing. I'll bet you every judge up there knows it's there. So why not do something, for heaven's sake."

A GOP judicial source says Stricklin may have a good reason for hoping the case stays in limbo until the election. If Barr is permanently removed from the bench, Governor George W. Bush could appoint a replacement before the election. The guv's last few court appointments here have been black and Hispanic lawyers, to colorize the mostly white judiciary. So Anglo Stricklin might have a better chance running in the primary against a wounded Barr than hoping for a nod from Bush.

Meanwhile, a pair of judges whose benches are safe next year are squaring off against each other for the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals seat that has been kept lukewarm for the last six years by quirky justice Steve Mansfield, who is waffling on whether to seek re-election. A "holier than thou" contest seems to be developing between civil District Judge John Devine and criminal District Judge Jim Wallace.

Devine sparked an unsuccessful legal challenge when he hung a copy of the Ten Commandments in his courtroom after he took office. Shortly before Wallace entered the race, he decided to be like John. Up went the Ten Commandments over the witness box in his court. The only other Harris County judges known to display the commandments in their courtroom are Devine and Scott Brister.

"I'm not trying to walk and sing necessarily with Judge Devine," Wallace says. He believes the Ten Commandments have more of a place in a criminal court.

"I felt very strongly that if we all did our very best to try to follow the original commandments, there'd be a whole lot fewer people in the courtroom." Wallace didn't explain why it took him well into his second four-year judicial term to arrive at that conclusion.

Daniel Shea, a Houston lawyer who has crusaded against the use of religious texts in courtrooms, figures Wallace is engaged in a cynical attempt to woo conservative Republicans by demonstrating he's just as religious right as Devine.

Whether the strategy works is questionable. Devine has the endorsement of Harris County conservative kingmaker Steve Hotze in the bag. Still, GOP political consultant Allen Blakemore doubts that either judge will be a favorite in the statewide race by the time spring rolls around. He's betting that a strong contender, appellate specialist Alan Curry, will come from -- where else? -- the ranks of Holmes's ambitious prosecutors.

 
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