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.

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 Holmesand Carol Vance.

Other Harris backers include Al Keller, father of City Councilman Bert Kellerand 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.

He prefers to couch his position as simply being for Harris, who previously worked directly for him. "I think she's a fine lawyer, and that's the reason I'm supporting her, as opposed to being against Judge Law."

Rosenthal, Thomas and former D.A. Holmes posed with Harris for a group picture for her campaign. "I am positive that people who see that will say, 'Oh, the D.A.'s office is supporting this candidate,' " Holmes said from his ranch in the Brenham area. "Yeah, I don't think there's any question about that. But quite frankly, that doesn't offend me. We're in a friggin' democracy."

At the same time he understands Law's complaint.

"I don't feel pissed off that Judge Law is taking that position. That would be the very same position I would take, were I so situated."

Construction company owner Al Keller, the C-Club activist and father of Bert Keller, calls his personal experience in Law's court an eye-opener. The councilman admitted he was intoxicated when he crashed his vehicle into a parked truck and left the scene last year. It was what followed that incensed the elder Keller.

He cites her handling of the probation portion of the case as "very unfair." He says Law appeared ignorant of the difference between scheduled urine tests and random tests, in-town or out-of-town traveling rights and proper accounting of community service hours.

He says the bar poll echoed his own experience. "I'm not a one-guy or one-issue person," says Keller. "Her 5 percent ranking is just pretty outstandingly poor."

Lawyer Harmon, the husband of federal judge Melinda Harmon, says the Keller case also played a role in convincing him that Law has to go.

"She showed a shocking degree of judicial incompetence," says Harmon, who represented Keller with attorney Rusty Hardin. "When we started asking questions, I was informed she'd revoked somebody's probation for having a parking ticket. The Bert Keller situation was only filed because she ordered the D.A.'s office to do it. They didn't on their own do it." Keller eventually agreed to extra community service hours just to avoid the possibility that Law might sentence him to jail.

Jansen called up Harmon recently to seek support for his wife. Harmon gave him an earful. "I called him back about four weeks later, figuring he had cooled off. And again we had another hour or longer about the Keller case," recalls Jansen. He says Harmon also told him Hotze would not support her because the doctor was close friends with Keller. Al Keller dismisses that claim as "hogwash."

"Instead of worrying about Bert and Al Keller," retorts Harmon, "they ought to ask themselves, 'Why does the Houston Bar Association rate you the worst judge in Harris County?' and 'Why is the sheriff and the current and two past D.A.'s opposed to you and supporting Harris?' "

Judging by the firepower lined up against Law, it appears likely the first GOP incumbent to be defeated will be taken down by her own party in March -- before the Democrats get a chance in November.

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