The Bench Warmer

After two defeats by voters, will Bob Burdette finally lose his black robe to a DWI?

On a Friday evening early last month, retired barber Patti Lyn Simon and a friend were driving home after a quiet dinner at Baba Yega in the Montrose. Simon, a Houston native who is disabled with arthritis of the neck and back, braked her black Nissan pickup at the red light at Montrose and Westheimer.

Without warning, an impact racked the 56-year-old woman "like a lightning bolt going through my spine."

Simon's truck had been rear-ended by a green Jaguar driven by Bob Burdette, the 58-year-old Democratic judge who had twice been ousted by voters, only to return as a visiting judge over the protests of then-district attorney Johnny Holmes.

In a pickle: Judge Burdette poses for the HPD camera.
In a pickle: Judge Burdette poses for the HPD camera.

Simon looked back after the collision but could see nothing. Burdette already had piloted his damaged auto to the right and started to turn north on Montrose. Simon's companion, Josephine Boardman, jumped out and caught up to the Jaguar. She pounded on the windows, but Burdette continued turning and nearly hit another vehicle. A couple got out of that car and helped stop him from leaving.

Simon says her arms had gone numb, but she angrily asked the driver, "What is wrong with you?" According to Simon, the tottering man put his arms on her and replied, "I'm drunk."

"Excuse me?" Simon shot back. He repeated, "I'm drunk."

"This man was so polluted," recalls Simon, "he could barely stand up."

When asked for his license and insurance, the driver produced a business card that read "Harris County Visiting Judge." He was saying, "I've got to go home now."

Boardman grabbed the judge's keys from the ignition, noting that the car's interior smelled like a distillery. Police arrested and jailed the judge on misdemeanor charges of driving while intoxicated and failing to stop and give information at an accident. He refused to submit to a Breathalyzer.

An ambulance took Simon to Ben Taub Hospital. She remained there until the following morning, receiving treatment for back pain. "I got out an hour and a half before he got out of jail," she chuckles.

Asked for his own version of what happened, Burdette declined comment. He is scheduled to appear in court later this month for a preliminary hearing. Lyn McClellan, the district attorney's misdemeanor chief, told the Houston Chronicle he wanted guilty pleas on both charges in exchange for Burdette serving a year's probation and 100 days of community service. Upon reflection, McClellan later declined to discuss any plea offer, saying it might prejudice a jury should the case go to trial.

A courthouse source questions why Burdette wasn't charged under a felony law against drunken drivers who cause serious injuries in crashes. Simon is continuing therapy for the effects of the collision, but she agrees with McClellan that her injuries did not warrant a felony charge.

Burdette attorney Robert C. Bennett declined to reveal if there has been a plea agreement. However, the lawyer drolly observes that "I don't think you ought to be figuring on covering a long trial."

With the DWI likely to be an open-and-shut case, the real issue is whether Burdette will be allowed to continue as a visiting judge. He has presided over primarily capital murder trials in the county's "project" courts since 1994.

Death row cases require extensive jury selection and trial time, and the project courts were created to process them quickly, freeing up regular judges to handle normal docket duties. Occasionally district judges will take high-profile capital cases, using visiting judges to process the normal flow of cases in their courts.

Burdette was appointed by then- governor Mark White to the 337th District Court bench in 1983. A Republican landslide swept him out in 1984, and White came to the rescue in 1986 with an appointment to the 184th court. Eight years later Republican Jan Crocker defeated Burdette, and he went to the newly created project courts.

As district attorney, Holmes opposed the hiring of defeated judges, contending it made a mockery of the electoral system by thwarting the will of the voters. Holmes took his argument to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and lost.

Asked about his judicial future, Burdette responded that "I just want to get this whole thing over with and then just step back and take a look." Burdette says there are no rules that would prohibit his continued service, but the decision is not up to him.

Visiting judges are certified by regional administrative jurist Olen Underwood of Conroe. Bennett would say only that Burdette discussed his situation with Underwood, who did not return an Insider call for comment.

Even if Underwood keeps Burdette on the visiting judges' roster, he would fill in only at the specific invitation of individual judges. That shouldn't be a problem for Burdette, who has plenty of friends among the courthouse judiciary who will likely continue to give him cases if he's available.

"The institution has its own standards," says veteran attorney David A. Jones. "As it applies to Burdette, it's called speed in all things. Dispose of cases, dispose of people, and you're okay with them."

George Godwin, the Harris County criminal courts administrative judge, says that even if Burdette pleads guilty to DWI, he may still be able to preside over cases here.

"Obviously Bob's got some problems," says the judge. "I hope he gets them solved. If he addresses them, and I believe he will, I think he can offer a service to this community."

In recent years several Houston judges have been booted from the bench by the Texas Judicial Conduct Commission for behavior unbecoming a jurist. Judges Jim Barr and William "Bill" Bell lost their benches for violating state judicial strictures, including the one mandating that "a judge shall comply with the law and should act at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary."

In Barr's case, district attorney Holmes took the lead in filing a complaint with the commission alleging the judge had made obscene comments to two female prosecutors and exceeded his authority in ordering a sheriff's deputy jailed for failing to make a court date.

District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal says he will forward Burdette's DWI case record to the commission, but hasn't decided if he will take a position about Burdette's courthouse privileges. If Burdette pleads out and gets probation, Rosenthal figures he should face at minimum the same restrictions as a young prosecutor on his staff, who is not allowed to handle substance abuse cases while he faces a DWI charge.

Rosenthal, like Holmes, thinks defeated judges such as Burdette have no business trying cases. But even if he is allowed to return, the D.A. opines, "it would be difficult to have [Burdette] sit on any cases that involve allegations of alcohol or drug abuse."

It's a position the woman who bore the brunt of the judge's irresponsibility heartily endorses.

"If it's a DWI case or an injury case," comments Simon, "I don't see how he could sit up there and tell somebody you've got to do something more than I did."

Target Audience

Houston governmental affairs consultant Dave Walden is used to dealing with hardball clients like former mayor Bob Lanier, the Astros' Drayton McLane and the Rockets' Les Alexander. But two focus groups he convened recently for Texas Exile, an initiative to reduce gun violence, brought him face-to-face with tough guys of a very different caliber.

Assembled at a westside office building were groups of 12 to 15 ex-convicts who did time in state prison for murder, armed robbery and various other acts of criminal mayhem. Texas Exile is a partnership of federal, state and local authorities that funds extra federal prosecutors to crack down on felons who illegally possess firearms. Walden is designing a prevention campaign aimed at convincing former prisoners not to carry guns, and the idea was to pick criminal brains for the best strategies.

"Ex-cons are just like children," says Walden of his experience. "They need a steady drip of advertising reminding them that if they ever come into possession of a gun or bullet, they're going back to jail."

So how does one reach this rather specialized audience, and how should the message read? From the focus groups, Walden gathered the following insights:

Remind the ex-con of the least-liked aspects of prison, which include cold steel toilet seats on frigid mornings, ceaseless noise, lousy food, a lack of keys to anything and hard work in the fields.

To reach the former inmates, don't waste money on television advertising around news programs or in the evening. "These guys all watch daytime TV, soap operas, Jerry Springer, crap like that," says Walden. Don't bother with late-night TV, he advises, because "they ain't in the fuckin' house at night. They're out wandering around."

And forget about newspaper or magazine ads. "They do read Hustler, but we don't have enough money for that," notes Walden. Instead, he wants to use the ex-con's favorite literary genre, comic books, to reach them.

Since prisoners are well versed in the pantheon of action heroes, Walden wants to give every inmate leaving a Texas prison a comic book featuring a new protagonist, Ex-Con Man.

The enthusiastic consultant offers a sample plotline: "Ex-Con Man is getting out of prison, and he's doing great, but just like Superman reacts to kryptonite, when a gun gets around this guy, his pecker shrivels up!"

Or something like that.

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