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

 For a moment, Judge E. Janice Law seems baffled during the morning docket call. She has just read out a defendant's name, but he hasn't stepped forward.

Instead, the man with the balding head continues to sit in the jury box, staring at her.

"Oh, Mr. Slaughter, you may come up now." The frail woman in the black robe speaks in a pleasant, high-pitched voice. "Come up, please."

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

But Slaughter isn't going anywhere, not unless he takes his five fellow jail inmates along with him. The man in the orange jumpsuit looks back blandly at Judge Law. He raises his right wrist to display the dangling silver chain linking him to his associates.

"Oh, you are shackled! I didn't realize you were shackled," Law half apologizes, half laughs without malice. "Can you hear us all right from there?"

Slaughter rolls his eyes skyward. An attorney, standing near the judge, whispers something -- perhaps about a defendant's right to participate in his own proceedings.

Law nods. "Bailiff, will you unshackle the defendant?"

In a few minutes the defendant is headed back to jail, while Law returns to her ritual on this May day in County Criminal Court No. 5. Attorneys nervously glance at the judge and their watches as they mill about in a loose line waiting for her attention.

A defendant named Wimbley approaches the bench, straining to hear the soft tones of the judge's words. When he speaks, she cuts him off quickly. "Please!" she says, her nose wrinkling in disgust. "Please don't lean way, way into my face."

Law recoils, waving her left hand vigorously in front of her to, well, clear the air. But her uncovered left hand shows just how far she has come in her months as a county judge.

She may still be no populist, but -- unlike in her early days as a municipal court judge -- Law has left her surgical gloves at home, the ones she wore each day when she first took the bench. When mystified municipal aides inquired about the strange attire, she reportedly told them it was a safeguard, since she had to sign the same papers defendants handled. After all, you could never tell what those people might have come in contact with.

"I was astounded," says one attorney, who regularly appears in municipal court. "With those gloves, I couldn't tell if that was a proctologist or a butcher up there. But her explanation told it all -- you could imagine how she really felt about the people who had to come before her."

Sure, in eight months on the bench, a bare-handed Law has caught some criticism for her miscues in court. There was that panel of 32 potential jurors she left standing in the hallway for more than three hours. And the jurors who took the marijuana stash into the deliberating room for unsupervised evidence inspection.

But the concerns about this jurist run far deeper, into basic questions of whether she follows the law.

Frontline prosecutors and defense attorneys join in decrying her rulings and attitude about the administration of justice. The grace period for new judges has come and gone, and Law, they say, clings more stubbornly than ever to her strange notions.

A few of her fellow judges even stepped in with an intervention of sorts, trying to counsel Law on court procedures. Law cut that meeting short, reportedly saying they were ganging up on her. She walked out. Now some of her political backers have bailed out on her.

It doesn't bode well for the judge who is described by a peer as Exhibit A in the movement to reform the judicial selection process.

"It is generally accepted, by defense attorneys and prosecutors who have worked in her court, that she doesn't really understand her job," says veteran defense lawyer Terry Gaiser.

Kent Schaffer, president of the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, has not been in her court but has "heard the horror stories."

"Apparently she has her own way of doing things, without regard to tradition, practice -- or even the law," Schaffer says.

The gloves, it seems, have come off in this bare-knuckled contest of wills.


Elizabeth Gail Huff had been a campaign volunteer for Law and was one of her defenders. Until the day of June 4, when Huff was appointed by the judge to represent indigents at the docket call.

One of those in court was Marietta Elaine Barnes, 33, a nurse's aide who was charged with misdemeanor assault. Huff conferred with the woman and came away convinced that she had a valid defense.

Barnes gave her account of what started as a skating rink outing for her daughter on March 13. The nine-year-old accidentally bumped into a boy. An adult with that child chided him for not retaliating, so he collided with the girl. Barnes exchanged words with the woman, who spilled a soft drink on her. Then came the donnybrook between the two adults. Barnes, her child and a friend fled in a car as the other group banged on the windows.

After hearing the prosecution's plea bargain offer, Huff requested a setting for a jury trial. That wasn't what Law wanted to hear, the attorney says. Law told her the policy in her court was no trials without approval of the chief prosecutor.

"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.

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.

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.

"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.

But Law apparently figured he had two possible weaknesses: He was a Democrat. And he was a senior citizen.

"Let's talk practicality," Law said in a mail-out to voters in that district. "Howard is 64 years old. If he is re-elected, he will be 65 a few days after being sworn in and will be 69 years old if he finishes the term he is now seeking."

Wayland had no history of health problems. Law, who was 50 at the time, told The Houston Post she knew of no problems regarding her opponent's age -- but she still believed it was a viable issue and could be a factor against him.

Law also returned to the courthouse to sue a Republican primary opponent, alleging irregularities in his filing for that election. Her suit was thrown out as too late.

She lost her first race for office in November 1992. It would be nearly a year later that an undisclosed settlement was reached in the suit over the 11-year-old divorce decree.

The conclusion may have had something to do with what happened a month before that ending: Janice Law got married, and not to just anybody. She was the new bride of Donald Jansen, a political heavyweight and partner in the prestigious law firm of Fulbright & Jaworski.

In a paid marriage announcement in the Houston Chronicle, it was explained that "the bride and groom met through political campaigns."

And politics was the dominant theme of the write-up.

About 375 of their closest friends gathered for a wedding conducted by Catholic Monsignor Vincent Rizzotto himself.

It was poetry in motion. Then-state district judge Greg Abbott (now a state supreme court justice) read one poem. Jansen recited Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "How Do I Love Thee."

And in case anybody missed the connections of the wedding cast, that was emphasized in the wedding announcement. Rehearsal dinner courtesy of best man Louis Macey (the announcement gave his years on City Council, 1975 to '79). Matron of Honor was Tony Lindsay, the state district judge married to state legislator Jon Lindsay, a former county judge of Harris County.

There also was GOP chairwoman Betsy Lake and judges Caprice Cosper and Jim Scanlon.

As for the honeymoon, the woman who had fought forever over an ex-hubbie's lump-sum retirement was on her way to Lake Tahoe, Yosemite National Park and, oh yes, Russia.

Despite the well-connected nuptial crowd, none of the wedding gifts was a judicial bench. That would have to come later.

In 1994 Law ran against incumbent Jim Barkley for a county court at law criminal bench. She lost. But she gained herself a substitute municipal court position, courtesy of Houston City Council.

Two years later she filed for a more ambitious post: the state Court of Criminal Appeals seat being vacated by Democrat Sam Houston Clinton. She was an also-ran in the field for the statewide office.

But Law hardly seemed to view herself as a three-time loser with the electorate. These were warm-ups. Two years after her last defeat, the Republican tide was surging over the Houston electorate. And Eleanor Janice Law was riding that giddy surf.


The formula for victory in 1998 was simple. Get on the GOP primary ballot, with an endorsement from the Steven Hotze-led right-wing Christian conservatives. Hotze's forces, however controversial, got the voters out. Up to 40,000 God-fearing right-wingers were in the hands of the Hotze team.

And Law was one of them.

She had been a team player, a Republican loyalist for three past elections. And Law was first out on the campaign trail, targeting first one and then another bench being vacated by an incumbent. But those plans clashed with the strategy of Hotze's activists, who wanted prosecutors to run for the vacant judgeship positions so they would not have to resign from their jobs. (District Attorney Johnny Holmes had a policy at the time that prosecutors running for office could retain their jobs only if they sought judicial seats being vacated.)

So Law acceded to the wishes of Hotze and stepped aside from two races so prosecutors could run for those open benches. She set her sights on a challenge of Judge Hannah Chow.

Chow, while no legal scholar, had done nothing to raise the ire of the courthouse crew, much less the electorate. But she had one fatal flaw in 1998: She was a Democrat.

And the only real opposition for Law was another small-time lawyer named Mike Monks. He had the distasteful sideline, at least in the eyes of Hotze's organization, of being a bail bondsman as well.

One attorney closely involved with the Hotze effort explained the endorsement of Law. "She'd paid her dues, and she seemed qualified -- she was a former assistant U.S. attorney." Nobody appeared to notice that she'd been released after holding the job for all of about 30 weeks. It did not hurt that her husband was a politically connected partner in a powerful law firm. He'd served as counsel for the local GOP and had even been a member of the city's ethics commission.

Law got the nod for the endorsement, which gave her the GOP primary victory, thanks to Hotze's minions. And the general election was a slam dunk. Law, like most of the other GOP judicial candidates, prevailed by about 7 percentage points, riding Bush's coattails.

She was hardly a household name or even well known around the courthouse. On the long election slate, neither were most of the other bottom-of-the-ballot candidates. But in a few months, Law would gain celebrity status -- the wrong kind -- in the criminal justice system here.


If there was a theme to Law's campaign, it was a fairly standard spiel of reducing backlogged dockets. Her defeated predecessor Chow admitted problems in moving cases, although she'd been plagued by an illness and the death of a close family member.

Once on the bench, Law followed through with a hard -- some say hell-bent -- emphasis on processing the workload in her court. But attorneys found that, rather than a method to her madness, her methods were madness.

Every judge sets limits on attorneys for the time-consuming but important task of selecting juries. Law brought out an egg timer for each side. "It didn't matter if it was the state or defense, or whether an attorney was in the middle of questioning a prospective juror on a vital point or anything else," says one lawyer. "If the egg timer went off, that was it -- she'd stop 'em in mid-question or mid-answer."

While she is pleasant in the courtroom, Law has gained a reputation for her reluctance, or downright refusal, to reset cases, especially for trial. Attorneys had to personally appear in court for those chores. And they had to go before the judge herself to postpone a case.

That process actually contributed to increasing delays for those with business in her court. Law began her docket calls at 8 a.m. -- an hour before most judges.

The 8 a.m. start drew protests from prosecutors, who had to arrive for work at 6 or 6:30 a.m. to prepare for new cases flowing in from the previous evening. After taking their concerns to Law, she delayed the start until 8:30 a.m.

Such sessions are typically finished by mid-morning in many courts. With Law, they regularly extended through the lunch hour and beyond.

Lawyers found themselves waiting out long lines to make their appearance in front of Law. Some attorneys now say they've been forced to charge clients a "Law surcharge," a significantly higher fee when they find out a case has fallen into County Court No. 5. The reason is that it ties them up a lot longer to handle what is quick and routine elsewhere.

However, the focus on fast action carries some contradictory -- if not confounding -- twists.

Law loves hearings, even when there is no need for such time-consuming formalities. Repeatedly, defense attorneys and prosecutors protest that she won't simply accept standard motions for the dismissal of cases, particularly motions to revoke probation.

"There is more than enough legitimate work for those courts -- more than enough to occupy an able-bodied judge, without putting the state through those hearings," says attorney Brian Wice. "When you insist upon hearings, you devalue the currency of what really matters."

Worse, say attorneys, is that Law's penchant for hearings is more than time-consuming. In some cases, it has bordered on breaking the fundamental balance of the justice system by pushing for prosecutions even when the prosecution has determined there is no case. "She's acted at times like the defense attorney and prosecutor, as well as judge," one lawyer says. "That's not her role. We can't believe the places she sticks her nose into."


An example came in May. Prosecutor Kevin Petroff and defense attorney John Tipton appeared before Law for what they thought would be a very quick finale to a theft case. The defendant's one year of probation had ended with him serving 64 of the 80 hours of community service work.

The state had alleged earlier that the man had failed to pay some of his probation fees, but he had made good on those bills. Prosecutors, with the consent of the probation department, were ready to declare that probation was completed, with notice on his record that it was unsatisfactorily terminated. That would be one less case lingering before Law.

She didn't see it that way. According to the transcript, Law refused to consent to the dismissal. Then she proposed a three-day jail term for the defendant instead of accepting the agreement worked out.

Finally, Law began trying to conduct her own hearing, when all both sides wanted was to have the proceeding dismissed. She questioned her probation officer and even started to question the defendant, over the strong objections of defense attorney Tipton.

Prosecutors blocked her effort to start her own hearing when they refused to call an officer to verify the identity of the defendant through fingerprints. Finally, Law berated prosecutors and told the attorneys that they could "argue legalities."

In another case, attorney Phil Baker says, prosecutors tried three times to dismiss a motion to revoke his client's probation, until Law goaded them into a hearing where she sentenced the defendant to 325 days in jail.

Baker's client had been convicted of stealing a boat propeller and given probation. Authorities filed the revocation action after accusing the man of retaliating against those involved in the theft case.

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?"


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.

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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