Law Breakers

County prosecutors and the sheriff target a controversial judge

It's not often that The Insider is summoned to an informal hearing at the Houston Center food court with a sitting jurist, but County Criminal Court 5 Judge Janice Law is running scared and looking for help anyplace she can find it. There she was with her husband, Fulbright & Jaworski partner Don Jansen, ready to talk about an alleged cabal to drive her from office.

Her fears of imminent defeat are justified. In a highly unusual alliance, the county's top law enforcement leadership openly backs Assistant District Attorney Margaret Stewart Harris's challenge against Law in the GOP March primary. Harris's campaign literature features a memorable photo of Harris and about 700 pounds of prime law-and-order beef.

Judge Law claims the effort is an assault on the independence of the judiciary as well as retaliation for her rulings in a DWI case involving a Houston city councilman. Her critics reply that they're just trying to perform a public service by electing a qualified crimefighter while ousting a notoriously incompetent judge.

Harris with her heavyweight supporters.
Harris with her heavyweight supporters.

Law has two GOP ballot opponents: Harris, a prosecutor in the D.A.'s special crimes bureau, and defense attorney Laine Lindsay. Lawyer Blanca E. Lopez is running on the Democratic side. But Harris has backing from all the big guns: Sheriff Tommy Thomas, her boss, D.A. Chuck Rosenthal, and his predecessors Johnny Holmes and Carol Vance.

Other Harris backers include Al Keller, father of City Councilman Bert Keller and a member of the C (as in conservative) Club; and influential judicial fund-raiser and attorney Frank Harmon, who has links to westside religious activist Dr. Steven Hotze.

Al Keller supported Law until she tried to revoke son Bert's DWI probation on relative technicalities, including running a stop sign during an out-of-state trip. Harmon, who backed Law in her previous run for office, served on Keller's defense team and didn't like what he saw of the judge.

Law has a rep for courtroom eccentricities and seeming ignorance of legal procedures (see "Law and Disorder," by George Flynn, September 2, 1999). A native of Flint, Michigan, she started as a journalist who once was a religion writer for the Houston Chronicle in the early '70s. After stints as a prosecutor in Florida and for the feds, she had a string of unsuccessful campaigns for various judicial offices. In 1998 she ran against Democratic incumbent Hannah Chow and won. By then Law had divorced her first husband and married Jansen.

She ranks at the bottom of the latest bar poll, an evaluation of area judges compiled by the Houston Bar Association from its members. Of the respondents, 82.3 percent rated her poor. Her closest competitor on the county criminal bench was Reagan Cartwright Helm, with a 55 percent poor rating. By contrast, only 5.9 percent of respondents rated her outstanding, with Helm again next in line at 21.3.

Law dismisses the poll's relevance, saying that many of those rating her had never set foot in her court. She points out that in recent years, prosecutors have taken over most of the criminal court judgeships to the point where jurists are in danger of becoming rubber stamps for the district attorney.

"There are some people who think that the D.A.'s office just wants another seat, and that they have the power and authority to try and take it," says Law. "It's like where does a 500-pound gorilla sleep? Answer: Anywhere he wants."

She notes that another prosecutor, Terrence Windham, is running against Jim Wallace, a state district judge in disfavor with the D.A.'s staff.

For years, former district attorney Holmes required prosecutors to resign before running against an incumbent judge. The policy ended in the late '90s after a deputy challenged a similar restriction by Sheriff Thomas. A federal judge ruled that such policies deprived employees of their constitutional rights.

Prosecutor Harris says she has no intention of stepping down to face Law.

"I'm surprised and baffled," says Harris of Law's comments. "I guess the idea is that as a prosecutor I don't have free speech and I don't have rights to engage in the political process. Only Janice as a defense attorney would have had that right to run against Hannah Chow."

Harris says she decided to become a candidate not because of some law enforcement conspiracy but rather because she feels a duty to remove a legal embarrassment from the bench.

"I'm not running for the sake of running," says the 15-year prosecutor. She's married to a police lieutenant and has two preteen sons. "I have little kids that I'm having to be away from most evenings every week of campaign season. That's a tremendous sacrifice, but for three years I've been hearing horror stories coming out of that court, and somebody's got to do something."

According to Harris, attorneys on both sides in Law's court "do not have faith in her as a judge. That's reflected in the bar poll."

District Attorney Rosenthal admits he's in an uncomfortable position by supporting a Law opponent at the same time his prosecutors staff Law's court.

"Yeah, it's very hard to keep prosecutors in that court happy for very long. But obviously, I've still got to have people in there if and when she wins, and I'd rather not go on record indicating any specifics about our displeasure" with Law.

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