The Judge Who Can't Talk Straight

Can a statewide race save Jim Wallace from himself?

Last year the Houston Press revealed that Judge Jim Wallace thought he had found a dandy way to improve his dismal standings in the local Houston Bar poll ["Getting Out the Vote," by George Flynn, October 13, 1999]. He notified all attorneys seeking appointments in his court to join the bar, the idea being that lawyers feeding at his trough could be counted on to give him a plug when voting time came.

That gambit has come back to haunt Wallace, who is now in a statewide campaign for the GOP nomination to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. The State Commission on Judicial Conduct slapped Wallace with a public reprimand late last month, citing the news coverage of his improper policy that "casts public discredit upon the judiciary or administration of justice."

The commission also cited a previously unreported incident occurring in Wallace's court last September. The judge initiated a conversation about cell phones with a felon who had just pleaded guilty to theft from his employer, a cellular phone company. After the judge explained he needed a good cell phone for his political campaign, the pair went back to Wallace's private chambers to talk shop. Apparently they hit it off, because after a conversation about the felon's personal problems, Wallace returned to court and announced he wanted to revise the man's sentence and give him deferred adjudication rather than the previously agreed probation. The only reason the sentence was not changed is that the defendant decided he liked the probation better.

In its admonition, the commission concluded that Wallace's tête-$agrave;-tête with the phone felon left the clear impression that it might have affected the judge's decision in the case.

"A private conference in chambers, followed by an announcement from the bench that the judge desired to revise the sentence which he had moments before imposed, failed to promote public confidence in the judiciary...."

The reprimand to Wallace might not be the last. Last week the jurist was again a victim of his loose court banter. This time he allegedly compared the predicament of a former Houston policeman facing perjury and retaliation charges with that of a black DPS trooper treated to a birthday party with co-workers dressed as Ku Klux Klansmen. That complaint was forwarded to the commission by District Attorney Johnny Holmes Jr. The D.A. also played a role in complaints in recent years that eventually led to the commission action that ousted two Harris County district judges, William Bell and Jim Barr.

Wallace did not return a call from the Press concerning his latest judicial problems and the off-the-cuff evaluation of Wallace by district attorney candidate and prosecutor Chuck Rosenthal. In a 1998 informal rating of judicial candidates, Rosenthal opined that "Wallace does the best impersonation of an incompetent judge in the courthouse."

Based on the latest episodes, Wallace's performance couldn't get much more authentic. At the rate things are going, the judge had better win a seat on the Court of Criminal Appeals in Austin before his Houston bench goes up in smoke.

 
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