Getting Out the Vote
In August, state District Judge Jim Wallace was still smarting from his lousy rating a month earlier in the Houston Bar Association judicial poll. Wallace, a candidate for the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, wrote the Houston Chronicle to rip its editorial endorsing the HBA survey.
"Obviously, I would like to see my overall bar poll rating improve and I will continue to work toward that goal," his letter said. "But I will not do so at the expense of the law-abiding citizens of Harris County."
Last week, Wallace appeared to be keeping his word on that pledge. The controversial jurist went to work on his ratings problem, but not by doing any discernible good deeds from his courtroom bench.
Instead, he had his court coordinator post an office notice: Any attorney seeking appointment by Wallace to a case better be a card-carrying HBA member, as in member eligible to vote in that organization's future judicial polls.
That enables Wallace to uphold the second part of his August pledge, about not improving ratings at the expense of regular citizens. Instead, it will be court-appointed attorneys bearing the cost. They'll have to pony up between $45 (for a newly licensed attorney) and $170 (for those with at least ten years' experience) in HBA member fees if they want to tap in to Wallace's court-appointments money.
Many criminal-courthouse regulars were appalled at what some of them called a blatant effort by Wallace to use his judicial authority to influence the survey.
"He says he's not worried about the poll, but now he's seeing if he can pay some attorneys to join an organization for political purposes and vote for him," says David Jones, one attorney willing to speak on the record. "That's what it amounts to: him buying votes in the poll."
A few judges who were contacted also shook their heads privately at Wallace's action. They feel it compromises the integrity of the justice system and, as one of them says, gives the wrong impression that the judiciary is a "bunch of cheap political hacks."
For the record, Wallace insists his edict has nothing to do with the polls or his candidacy for the state's highest criminal appellate bench. Instead, he couches the order as an effort to uplift the defense bar into productive, "well-rounded" individuals. "I want lawyers to be good citizens and participate in community affairs" sponsored by the HBA, he says.
If that is his intent, the judge was asked, then why not have them join or show memberships in other community service organizations, such as the United Way? Wallace says that compares "apples and oranges," because the HBA is an attorneys' organization that promotes goodwill and works to improve the image of the legal profession among the citizenry.
However, the judge's lofty language about goals suffered a setback when he was pressed on what other rules or memberships he might impose on court-appointed attorneys.
"They must wear underwear!" Wallace blurted out before his voice turned angry. "I know what you are looking for, and you aren't going to get it out of me."
Among the 70 or so judges in the HBA poll, no others are known to have an HBA requirement for attorneys receiving appointments. Wallace says he believes County Criminal Court Judge Michael Peters (who volunteers at homeless shelters during holidays) demands that, but attorneys who receive Peters's appointments say they have never heard of such a rule.
Nor has HBA President Andrew Hanen. "Judges have their quirks and idiosyncrasies in their appointments," he says, but the bar association had no input and did not ask Wallace to do this.
Hanen and other HBA officials acknowledge that its polls are not perfect or scientific, but they say the results are a good general indication of the performance of judges. They say the information is helpful to voters, attorneys and the judges themselves.
In the August survey, nearly half the attorneys who rated Wallace found his performance "poor." It was one of the worst rankings among the judiciary. In a February 1998 HBA poll, more than one-third of the 600 responding attorneys found Wallace "not qualified." The rest ranked him qualified or well qualified.
Wallace's main beef is that most rank-and-file criminal-law attorneys are not part of the poll because few of them are HBA members. The bar association says there are about 16,500 licensed attorneys in Harris County, and about 10,000 of them belong to HBA.
Not many members participate in the polls -- there were 1,500 questionnaires returned in this year's survey. HBA officials have said that is an indication of how well it works, because only attorneys familiar with a specific judge should be involved in evaluating that jurist.
Judges who fare poorly typically blame the results on the absence of non-HBA members, or that they are tough on criminals or lawyers and therefore alienate the attorneys. Wallace used both arguments in his letter to the Chronicle.
Wallace calls his HBA requirement "a double-edged sword." He says that the attorneys -- they are the same ones dependent on him for court appointments -- might resent the membership requirement and vote against him in the poll.
His embarrassing survey results have not yet translated into regular election problems. In the HBA polling before last year's Republican primary, Wallace opponent Don Lambright soundly beat Wallace in the results. Wallace had four times as many lawyers finding the judge "not qualified," and Lambright had three times as many lawyers rating Lambright as "well qualified." But Wallace had the vote that counted: The Christian conservative group of GOP kingmaker Steve Hotze endorsed Wallace, and he prevailed in that race.
However, the prospects of Hotze's Harris County backing do not loom as influential in Wallace's statewide run for the GOP appeals court nomination. But Wallace shows every sign of trying to capture the Christian right. Civil District Judge John Devine, who has since dropped out of the race, had gained notoriety for hanging the Ten Commandments in his courtroom. So Wallace also displayed those commandments in his court.
"Everything Wallace does -- the Ten Commandments, and now this HBA requirement -- is all about getting a Republican primary victory," says attorney Jones. "There's no other way to explain these changes in his conduct."
With the wide latitude given to judges for courtroom operations, Wallace is free to set whatever rules he wants for court-appointed attorneys.
Jones, a Democrat, says the situation is bad enough to make Jones hope the state switches from election of judges, even if that means appointment by governor.
"Politics, to a greater or lesser extent, has a presence in the courtroom," Jones says. "But the worse they are as judges, the more politics they play. They can't stand on their merits or their qualifications. That's really too bad."
E-mail George Flynn at firstname.lastname@example.org.