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

Silence followed. "Sustained," Law ruled.

Emboldened by the unusual decision, the defense hammered away with more of those "objections," even in closing arguments. Law actually grew angry with prosecutors, warning them to stop their burden-shifting ways.

Chuck Noll, the district attorney's chief of misdemeanor courts, chuckles about the incident. Law, he says, is no different from most other beginning judges learning the ropes.

"It is not fair to be critical at this point," Noll says. "She's committed to doing a good job -- we've had some others who just wanted to pick up a paycheck."

Noll concedes that the turnover of prosecutors in her court has been among the highest in the courthouse. He says that the D.A.'s office has had to come back later and show her and some other judges that some of their rulings are contrary to established law.

Kent Schaffer, leader of the defense bar group, bristles at the state's coaching of Law.

"Why should it be up to prosecutors to tell her what she can and can't do? She shouldn't be taking cues from the D.A."

Schaffer says Law ought to be reading up on the law to make her own decisions. He notes that the county criminal court judges even have a respected staff attorney, Marshall Shelsy, who does legal research strictly for them. "Better yet, she can just pick up the phone and call him."

However, Law may have more trouble getting help from another influential source: Steven Hotze's organization, which backed her in the election.

A ranking member of that group, who asked to remain unnamed, says considerable efforts went into aiding Law in her transition to the bench. They preached patience to many of the early critics. But when Law shunned advice, even from veteran judges, Hotze himself gave up on her.

"Our attitude now is to heck with her," the source says. "She looked like she had the qualifications to do the job. That turned out not to be the case."

Meanwhile, attorney Elizabeth Huff and client Marietta Barnes appealed Law's decision to appoint another attorney for Huff in the skating rink assault case. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals halted proceedings in the case, then received a response from Law: Despite the sworn affidavits of Huff and Barnes, the judge's position was that she never actually took Huff off the case, but appointed a second lawyer to it. And the other attorney appointed by Law has voluntarily withdrawn from the case, the judge told the appeals court. Late last week, the appeal was dropped when Huff's representation of Barnes was reaffirmed.

Law's explanation to the appeals court raised the eyebrows of some Harris County legal specialists, who point out that it is virtually unheard of for any judge to appoint two attorneys to work on a simple misdemeanor assault case.

Several lawyers protest that her county criminal court should be concerned with more than dockets and questionable hearings and mundane matters.

The arguments sound eerily familiar to those made by a lawyer as she pleaded with a family court judge to give her half the lump-sum retirement of her ex.

"Beyond all the scheduling, paperwork shuffling and hearings and general daily workload of the court, in its purest function it has the ability to do substantial justice."

It was Janice Law who uttered those words about ten years ago. But that was long before she wore a black robe -- or plastic gloves.

E-mail George Flynn at george_flynn@houstonpress.com.

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