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

The ex-husband's attorney, Joe Pirtle, appeared to be baffled by her effort to reopen a six-year divorce settlement. He pointed out in 1988 court filings that Law was an attorney who was aware -- or should have been -- that her ex had retirement funds coming. Her only complaint, he said, was that he took it in a lump sum. She also complained that he told her he would not remarry anytime soon, yet he did just that.

Law hardly sounded like the ex-prosecutor/staff lawyer for the federal courts/ assistant city attorney as she pleaded in a January 1989 hearing:

"It's another day, another routine hearing ... but for me it's an extraordinary day, it's a day which has a lot to do with my future and financial assets," she argued to the judge. Why, one-fourth of the money would go to the Internal Revenue Service, she noted.

Law challenges prosecutors on dismissing some cases.
Law challenges prosecutors on dismissing some cases.

"Your honor, after 18 years of marriage [she neglected to mention the lengthy separation], I'm more deserving than the IRS."

In the same general period that Law was entering pleas of near poverty, socialite Carolyn Farb transformed her River Oaks mansion into the plantation "Tara." It was a Gone with the Wind spectacular, a fund-raiser for the Society for Performing Arts.

A renowned carriage collector sent a team of horses to take guests on rides through the magnolias. Ladies received gardenias and lace fans as musicians performed "Waiting for the Robert E. Lee" music. The event drew the city's elite.

And, as a society columnist reported, Eleanor Janice Law was right in there with the best of them.

In fact, Law got other occasional society column mentions, along with sightings of Lynn Wyatt and Bill Blass and other notables.

Meanwhile, in the battle with her ex, a new problem flared: the loan he had given her so she could keep the house and repay him his equity. With 2 percent interest, Law's remaining balance on the $30,000 note worked out to, uh, $32,500.

His court documents said she hadn't made the $300 monthly payments and hadn't honored the provision to put the house up for sale if she missed three consecutive payments. Over the several-year period, her total contributions were $2,600.

When her former husband sought to enforce those terms, Law scoffed at the notion of such a motion to have the house sold and the proceeds split.

His motion failed to allege with "particularity" how she failed to comply with the divorce decree, Law replied. Besides that, the decree did not award her ex any money -- only a note in which she promised him to pay. So it could not be enforced by a court, she argued. And the statute of limitations had expired on claims by her ex, she alleged.

In one of her filings, Law sounded downright gracious: Let him surrender any interest in the house, and she'd let him keep his retirement payment.

Law lost the court ruling but kept the case alive with lengthy appeals all the way to the state supreme court, which decided to hear the case.

As that appeal started, she left the city attorney's office in May 1990 and became an assistant U.S. attorney assigned to McAllen.

Her move to McAllen, she wrote in a request to extend a filing deadline, "consumed and is consuming huge chunks of the undersigned's time and mental and physical energy."

In fact, she said, she was still commuting from Houston to the job in McAllen.

Some of the other employees in the U.S. attorney's office say they sensed something bizarre was going on with their new colleague. For at least a portion of the time, they say, she did more than work in the South Texas office -- she was living in it.

One U.S. Attorney's employee says staffers would occasionally find Law taking sponge baths in the restroom, during the hot Rio Grande Valley summer. One story centered on Law asking a clerk for a favor as the office was closing. She needed a ride. The clerk said sure, and Law directed her to a cafeteria. She told the clerk to wait in the car while she ran in -- and ate dinner. Then the clerk drove her back to the office.

Law's turn as a federal prosecutor ended in six months, with the decision not to retain her. Attorneys there say she handled various mundane illegal-immigrant cases and little more. Her résumé filed four years later with the city estimated her federal caseload at ten.

By December 1990, Law was in "solo legal practice." For at least a couple of those years, that meant focusing on her continuing appeals battle with her ex-husband. But in April 1992, Law had a new distraction that required a delay in the proceedings, her court documents said.

She was running for the post of justice of the peace. Her request for a continuance said, "She has ... been unable to focus the necessary time and attention on this matter to be adequately prepared for trial and will not be available until after November 3, 1992."

Her campaign target was Justice of the Peace Howard Wayland, who presided over the southeast Houston and Harris County area. Wayland was first elected in 1981 and had never drawn an opponent before.

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