Like Brendon Baker, Bill Henderson has had his share of marital and financial problems. Henderson filed for personal bankruptcy in 1992, listing $91,000 in assets and $246,000 in liabilities, including about $20,000 in back taxes owed to the IRS. He eventually agreed to a five-year plan to retire his debts that required him to pay $1,000 a month to a bankruptcy trustee, and the case was dismissed last October.
Having a few more job options than Brendon Baker, the lawyer decided in 1993 to run for a judgeship in the beleaguered family courts of Harris County. In March 1994, a few days before the Republican primary, he filed for divorce. The resulting custody arrangement gave his ex-wife managing conservatorship of their two children and granted him visitation rights. Henderson, 45, has since remarried. But as the judge was presiding over the trial of Brendon and Brandi Baker's lawsuit in his 311th District Court, his divorce case was open again in another court a few yards down the hall after his ex-wife asked that the judge be ordered to pay more child support.
Having experienced his own marital problems and being a divorced dad had no influence on his decision not to terminate Brendon Baker's parental rights, Henderson says. But Randy Burton of Justice for Children, one of the advocacy groups that monitors the family courts, isn't so sure that's the case. "It presents the possibility that he could be biased," Burton says.
Henderson was swept into office in the 1994 Republican landslide, which left only two incumbents on the nine family court benches in the county. For a decade previously, court watchers and child advocates had complained of cronyism in ad litem appointments in the family courts and of judges' insensitivity to domestic violence and their failure to recognize what constitutes the best interest of children. A number of regular court watchers interviewed for this story say there indeed have been vast improvements in the system under the new judges, although Henderson's decision in the Baker-Fitts dispute has put them on alert.
Paulette Stubbs of Justice for Children says Henderson is "still too new to assess," although she says her organization has logged some complaints from women about Henderson's decisions in their divorces and in cases involving children's best interests.
"The red flags are up," says Stubbs.
It wouldn't be the first time a woman has complained about Henderson. During Henderson's campaign for judge, a Republican precinct chair named Lynda Webster became a one-woman army out to stop the lawyer's election, following him to campaign stops and passing out leaflets repeating a number of allegations that grew out of Henderson's representation of her ex-husband in divorce proceedings. Among other things, Webster claimed that Henderson told her she "deserved everything she got" after he had viewed medical reports showing she had been a victim of domestic violence.
Henderson denies that he ever made that comment, and neither Lynda Webster nor her attorney in the divorce, Roland Kemp, responded to several phone messages from the Press.
Webster also had claimed that Henderson lied on a questionnaire that the county GOP's judicial screening committee requires the party's candidates for judgeships to fill out.
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There are two different versions of the same questionnaire in Henderson's file at Republican headquarters. On one, dated December 27, 1993, Henderson reported that he had never been sanctioned by the courts or filed bankruptcy. On a second questionnaire, dated the following day, Henderson replied in the affirmative to both questions.
Henderson now says he misunderstood the questions. He acknowledges he was once fined about $400 by a judge in a discovery dispute, but says he didn't think that was the kind of sanction to which the questionnaire referred. Nor did he think that the question, "Has a tax lien ever been filed against you or have you or a company or partnership in which you own(ed) more than a 10 percent interest ever filed for bankruptcy?" applied to his personal bankruptcy.
But at least one Republican Party leader with knowledge of the screening committee's operation says Henderson changed his answers after being confronted by a committee member who believed he was not entirely truthful.
Six months after the dates on the questionnaires, Henderson wrote to Betsy Lake, the chairman of the Harris County Republican Party, acknowledging he had erroneously answered no to the two questions on the original questionnaire. He hoped he hadn't embarrassed the Republican Party, he said.