Editor's note: More substantial details from a defense attorney whose client was caught in the crossfire of the judges' dispute and who reached out Friday morning appear at the bottom of this story.
When it comes to that whole "sharing is caring" idea, at least one Harris County judge may have slept through that lesson in kindergarten.
Since Hurricane Harvey ravaged the main Harris County criminal courthouse, Harris County judges have been sharing courtrooms with each other in the civil courthouse — where the felony judges share benches — and in the family courthouse, where the misdemeanor judges share.
But beyond the general chaos and confusion among defendants, that hasn't exactly been going swimmingly.
Since Monday — the day sharing began — the Houston Press has heard from at least five attorneys about a testy exchange between State District Judge Jim Wallace and State District Judge Nikita Harmon that ended with Wallace threatening to arrest her.
The two judges, who share a courtroom in the civil courthouse, reportedly got into it after Wallace got impatient and demanded Harmon get off the bench so he could have a turn and take some pleas. Harmon, however, was not done with her business, and so she didn't leave. Reportedly, in open court, Wallace then threatened to have the bailiff arrest and remove her if she didn't voluntarily get off the bench. Nevertheless, Harmon was in fact not arrested for, well, doing her job.
"If you threaten someone who's not doing anything illegal with arrest and you’re a judge," said attorney (and Houston ISD trustee) Jolanda Jones, who spoke to the Press Tuesday, "the rest of the people in his courtroom don’t have a chance."
Jones has since organized a press conference to take place Friday outside the civil courthouse to call out Judge Wallace for his comments and, as Jones put it, his "tyranny and bullying." Jones indicated to the Press she believed this was a continuation of a race-relations problem she said has existed at the courthouse (Harmon is black; Wallace is white), while other attorneys the Press spoke with on background believed it was yet another case of a Republican judge butting heads with a Democratic colleague (Harmon is a newly elected Democrat; Wallace is a Republican).
Wallace did not return an email seeking comment; his court coordinator said she would give Wallace our contact information, but when asked if she wanted to take down why the Press was calling, she said she did not want to know.
Judge Harmon said, through her coordinator, that she was prohibited from commenting and would neither confirm nor deny anything about the incident.
This is not the first time Wallace has faced criticism for some impulsive off-the-cuff comment or questionable behavior — or even the first time he's threatened to get a judge kicked out of court. According to a court transcript obtained by Houston Chronicle columnist Lisa Falkenberg last year, Wallace asked bailiffs to remove Judge John Phillips, a juvenile judge, from the courtroom for "being disruptive." Phillips had been called for jury duty, and when Wallace asked the pool of potential jurors whether they knew anyone in the room or saw any conflicts, Phillips stated the obvious: He knew of Wallace. Long story short, Wallace asked bailiffs to take Phillips out of the courtroom essentially for interrupting him.
His track record for this kind of behavior dates back to at least 2000 — a particularly controversial year for Wallace — when he was officially reprimanded by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct after he sentenced a felon accused of stealing from his employer, a cellphone company — then told the felon that actually he himself needed a cellphone for his political campaign. After taking the felon to a conference room for a chat, apparently about phone options, Wallace re-emerged and lessened the man's punishment to deferred adjudication.
The next month, according to a February 2000 Houston Press article about Wallace titled "The Judge Who Can't Talk Straight," the Harris County District Attorney's Office complained to the judicial conduct commission after Wallace "allegedly compared the predicament of a former Houston policeman facing perjury and retaliation charges with that of a black DPS trooper treated to a birthday party with co-workers dressed as Ku Klux Klansmen." A few months later, according to a Chronicle archive, Wallace was brought before the commission again for investigation into an alleged "racially charged" comment.
According to Jones's press release, members of the criminal defense bar and activists are expected to protest Wallace's latest remarks at 11 a.m. Friday outside the Harris County Civil Courthouse on Caroline Street.
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Update, September 15, 9:41 a.m.: Val Zuniga, the defense attorney for a man waiting to plead before Judge Wallace, reached out to the Press with additional details Friday morning. Zuniga said that he and his client had been waiting for more than an hour to go before Wallace to plead. At the time Wallace came out and snapped at Harmon, Zuniga said, Harmon did not appear to be doing anything substantial other than talking to her bailiff, and only about four defendants, including Zuniga's client, were in the courtroom gallery.
Still, Harmon would not let Wallace have the bench even temporarily for a couple of pleas. "[Wallace] said, 'Well I could have you arrested,'" Zuniga recalled. "He was visibly upset. He was frustrated at the situation, obviously." Before walking out, Wallace then told Harmon, "You've been here seven months and you think you own the place," according to Zuniga.
Five minutes later, Zuniga said State District Judge Susan Brown, the administrative judge in the felony courts, came out and asked if she could speak with Harmon. Apparently, no resolution between the judges could be reached, as Zuniga says Harmon came back out and sat at the bench for 45 minutes and spoke to one attorney and took one plea. Finally, at 11:30, she gave up the bench.
"I cannot stress enough that I am not a fan of Judge Wallace," Zuniga said, "but Judge Harmon during this time was not doing anything on the bench. Should Judge Wallace have said that? No. But she was holding up a person's ability to complete their case and get out of there a free man because she wouldn't get off the bench. I think they were both acting irresponsible. They were both acting like children."