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

However, a follow-up investigation showed that the supposed victims actually had been chasing his client around in a car and making the threats. Law overrode traditional laws regarding evidence in the hearing in her zest to put the defendant behind bars, Baker says.

He says Law threatened to prosecutors that she would call Johnny Holmes himself and make him explain why they wanted to dismiss the revocation action. The judge allowed hearsay evidence and used copies of documents that were clearly inadmissible, Baker says. The sentence came as the defendant was just days away from completing probation.

"Instead of sitting up there and referring to the arguments and evidence, she took it upon herself to act as prosecutor," Baker says. "Why do we have rules if we are not going to follow them? Why does the number of cases on your docket matter?"

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

The rush to judgment caught attorney Mike Gillespie off guard. His client, 25, had been stopped by police for a seat-belt violation while driving with three friends. Officers reported finding 13 grams of marijuana in the car. His client was horrified, saying he had just been to his marijuana dealer's house and there were actually 28 grams. He believed police stole half of it, so he wanted the police to have to take the witness stand.

"My kid's not terribly smart, but he's got a lot of spunk," Gillespie says.

Regardless, the key issue was the search of the car. Police cannot go through a car on a mere seat-belt violation, although they do have the right to check when they are in reasonable fear for their safety. But there were three officers ultimately involved in the stop, so Gillespie felt he had a strong case of an illegal search.

Law, he says, first told him there would not be a separate hearing on the search issue, that it would be part of the trial to begin at 1 p.m. the next day.

The following morning, he waited to plead out a defendant to state District Judge Mike McSpadden. That was a felony case, which takes priority over a misdemeanor. Then his pager went off, instructing him to go to Law's court.

"I walked in, and the cop is on the stand, and the D.A.'s are ready to go," he says. Law informed him she'd changed her mind and they were ready to proceed with the motion hearing -- now.

That lasted through lunch. At 1 p.m., she ended the hearing by rejecting his motion involving the search. "Then she turns and says, 'Okay, bring the jury in.' " The client pleaded guilty.

And Gillespie says he next got called on the carpet by McSpadden for disappearing from his court, until the attorney explained what had happened in Law's court.

Another attorney discovered that court priorities or out-of-county cases apparently mean little to Law.

Terry Gaiser was representing a man charged with drunken driving in Harris County. Then the defendant was arrested for felony drug possession in Fort Bend County, which took action to have his earlier probation revoked there.

With the man safely in Fort Bend County jail, Gaiser and prosecutors took the standard approach to the misdemeanor case: Harris County would stand by while the other county revoked his probation and assessed a felony sentence which would be stiffer than any misdemeanor drunken-driving penalty he would receive here.

His file was marked "PASS FOR FELONY." In Law's case, however, it was pass-fail.

The judge -- who had argued for a few months' delay in her own civil case so it would not interfere with her politicking -- insisted on setting the case for trial the following week.

Gaiser explained to her on a Friday that he was scheduled to begin a felony trial the following Monday. Law, unfazed, advised him that she'd hold the misdemeanor case "for a day or two."

Gaiser informed her it was a murder trial, and a particularly heinous one. A father was accused of shaking his baby to death. Law apparently didn't care, telling Gaiser she'd tried homicide cases in two days. The judge even called him during the murder trial to see if he would still be ready to go to her court.

Thanks to Law's supposed diligence, Harris County wound up paying for the costs of a bench warrant to have a misdemeanor defendant transferred from Fort Bend County, just so he could plead guilty. As expected by the defense attorney and prosecutors, he wound up having Fort Bend County revoke his probation and assess felony punishment there, making the conviction and penalty here virtually meaningless.

"It was a waste of everybody's time," Gaiser says.

Complaints seem to continue unabated by the novel actions of County Criminal Court No. 5.

During a drunken-driving trial, a prosecutor cross-examined the defendant, who said the bartender would vouch for the defendant's having had only a few drinks. If that was the case, the prosecutor asked, then why didn't the defense exercise its right to subpoena the bartender for testimony?

"Objection!" the defense attorney interrupted. "The state is wrongly trying to shift the burden of proof to the defense!" While it may have scored points for jurors, there is no legal basis for that kind of objection.

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