Law and Disorder

In Janice Law's quests for a judgeship, the fourth time was a charm -- and now an alarm for the rest of the courthouse

"I asked, 'What??' " Huff said in a sworn affidavit. " 'Are you telling me that the prosecutor has to give his permission for Marietta Barnes to get a jury trial?' Judge Law replied in the affirmative."

A bigger surprise awaited Huff and Barnes at the next case setting ten days later, on June 14. Huff says Law summoned her to the bench and bounced her from the case, saying she had been replaced with her "trial attorney," a lawyer not certified by the county to represent indigents.

Huff says the other attorney pressured Barnes to plead guilty to the charge.

Attorney Huff says Law tried to bounce her from a case when she asked for a trial.
Attorney Huff says Law tried to bounce her from a case when she asked for a trial.
Barnes found problems when she pleaded not guilty to Law.
Barnes found problems when she pleaded not guilty to Law.

Law declined to discuss that case -- or anything else -- with the Press, saying it would violate the judicial code of ethics. Other lawyers anticipated that she would argue that her arrangement is no different from that of many other courts. She uses an "attorney of the day" to handle quick pleas and preliminary court work on a case, and other attorneys if there is a later trial.

However, several lawyers say judges simply cannot appoint and then "unappoint" a lawyer for indigents. That is strictly up to the client, they say, and Barnes clearly wants Huff to represent her.

In the end, Law argued that she never took Huff off the case.

Brian Wice, an associate municipal court judge and former substitute county court judge, says case law "is dead set against Law" on the issue. Attorney Mike Gillespie calls it a blatant attempt to penalize a defendant for exercising the right to a trial.

In addition to a voter-catching last name, Janice Law carried a most impressive résumé to woo the electorate in her race last year for County Court at Law No. 5.

Born in Flint, Michigan, in 1942, she had worked as a prosecutor in Florida. In Houston, she'd stepped up to briefing attorney for the federal courts. She was an assistant Houston city attorney, and later associate municipal court judge.

Better yet, Law could boast her experience as a former assistant U.S. attorney. There weren't many incumbents, much less candidates, who had exposure to so many levels of the justice system. As for stability, she was married and had five stepchildren.

The voters who read that thumbnail sketch could see a ready-to-hang courtroom portrait of seasoned judicial temperament with ample job experience. The only question was how long she'd lasted in any of the positions.

And she had logged ample time in Harris County courtroom proceedings -- a lot of it spent dogging her ex-husband in a vain pursuit for his retirement proceeds.

Janice and Robert Andrew Law married in 1964 and separated nine years later. While he held a job at NASA, she received her law degree from Fort Lauderdale's Nova University and went to work as a prosecutor in rural Polk County, Florida.

Nine months later, she moved on to Broward County as an assistant state attorney. That job lasted four years -- the longest in her career.

The Laws' childless divorce action came in Harris County in 1981, with a settlement the following year. There were no serious disputes and no extensive property to be divided, although the terms of the breakup, drafted by Law and her attorney, went on for several legal-size pages.

She got the '73 VW. He claimed the '79 Plymouth Volare. And the color TV, radio/stereo and chain saw.

Janice Law's big score was the real estate: their cabin in St. Ignace, Michigan, and their Houston house on Whispering Creek Way. However, to buy out his equity in the house, she signed a $30,000 loan, agreeing to pay him $300 monthly.

With the divorce out of the way, Law returned to Florida and worked for Broward County until July 1985, when she moved to Houston. She put in five months as a civil attorney, then landed a job as one of the staff attorneys for the U.S. district courts here. Her primary work was processing suits filed by prison inmates. By October 1988 she had jumped jobs again. This time it was less than two years with the city attorney's office.

But then her ex-husband did what Law deemed to be an outrageous act. Not only did he retire, he had the audacity to take a lump-sum payment of about $40,000 from his pension.

Even though the divorce was more than six years in the past, she hauled him back into court demanding half of that money. In interrogatories, she quizzed him on his date of retirement, and "what other funds were anticipated."

If she had outrage, she also had a major hurdle to overcome: the divorce decree. Part of it said they were each entitled to 100 percent of their own retirement: "Šany and all sums, whether matured or unmatured, vested or otherwise, together with all increases thereof, the proceeds therefrom, and any other rights related to any profit-sharing plan, retirement plan, pension plan or life benefit program by reason of [their] past, present or future employment." Period.

Never mind all that, Law said in motions filed in the case. She accused him of fraud. She alleged he was guilty of "unjust enrichment." Why, $14,000 of the payout had been frittered away on a college fund for his stepchildren from his new marriage after the divorce from Law.

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