Depending on whose private correspondence you happen to read, Harris County Civil Court Judge Carolyn Day Hobson is either an incompetent jurist who enriched her hairdresser with court appointments or an independent judge who has alienated lawyer supporters by ruling against them in her court.
The four Harris County civil court-at-law judges, including Hobson, have taken a beating in the media this summer over their established practice of awarding hefty fees to court-appointed commissioners who in turn reward the judges with generous campaign contributions. Texas Lawyer revealed that the four have paid out nearly $2 million in fees to commissioners who make land appraisals and received more than $400,000 in campaign contributions from the recipients. Many of the commissioners are family friends and cronies of the judges.
The bad pub hasn't appreciably weakened the candidacies of incumbents Charles Coussons and Ed Landry, and a third judge, Tom Sullivan, is unopposed. But at a time when Democrats supposedly are trying to increase the ranks of blacks and Hispanics in the local judiciary, Hobson, one of a handful of countywide elected black jurists, has picked up some powerful political opponents from within her own party.
Prominent trial lawyer Bob Bennett, who had considered running for the county Democratic chairmanship in the March primary, recently disavowed his earlier support of Hobson and circulated a blistering letter to trial lawyers urging them to support Hobson's GOP opponent, Lynn Bradshaw Hull. In addition to citing the Texas Lawyer report and 24 appeals reversals of Hobson's rulings, Bennett delved into the judge's personal finances.
"The public record shows the incumbent has had numerous federal tax liens filed against her for income taxes and employer taxes," wrote the lawyer. "A judgment was also taken against her for unpaid debt. What conclusions must the public draw regarding the incumbent's judgment ... in awarding fees funded by state taxpayers? ... in presiding over tax cases? ... in presiding over state debt?"
Bennett's about-face occurred soon after he lost a libel case brought by a Houston policeman against the Houston Chronicle on a directed verdict from Hobson in June. In a letter to a Hobson supporter, attorney Frank Harmon, Bennett seems to link his decision to oppose the judge to the court ruling.
"We've both known Judge Hobson for a while, and I was a supporter prior to trying the libel case we discussed. Having now learned of her poll ratings and her 24 reversals, I strongly believe she is in the wrong line of work," Bennett wrote. "Although it would be awkward for you to switch your endorsement, I hope you will not actively support the incumbent, and will, at least, not be against Lynn."
Judge Hobson contends her independence has earned her the ire of Bennett and other members of an influential corps of trial lawyers. "It is a vendetta," she says. "Bennett had supported me prior to [the libel ruling]. Now he says I'm in the wrong business."
Hobson has no plans to try to woo Bennett back to the fold.
"No, I will not talk with him about that," says the judge. "At my fund-raiser on May 2 his law firm gave me a $250 donation. He did appear and prior to the [primary] election he had gone around telling folks when I appeared at various functions what a great judge I was. Now I'm no longer competent."
Hobson claims it's the same story with other lawyers who have turned on her. "That has happened with most of the lawyers whose names appear on a list [opposing Hobson], including the woman who's running against me. Those, if I know them by name, have lost a case in this court.
"In this court you don't buy justice," declares the judge. "I'm not for sale. I think I taught [Bennett] a lesson, if that's what he expected. I don't know if that's what he expected, but if he did, he was wrong."
Bennett agrees that losing the case in Hobson's court influenced his decision to oppose her, but he says it was only one of a number of factors, starting with media reports of her "tithing" to friends through court appointments. The lawyer says he got his first close-up look at Hobson's judicial skills in the Chronicle libel case, and he found her directed verdict in favor of the newspaper outrageous, given the facts of the case.
"After we put on expert witnesses, numerous documents, and several fact witnesses, including the former head of the media for the police department, she said there was no evidence and directed a verdict against us," recounts Bennett. "The attorney for the Chronicle said he'd never in a thousand years have believed he'd get a directed verdict."
Bennett says the revelation in the Texas Lawyer story that Hobson paid her hairdresser to appraise land cemented his view that the judge was not worthy of support.
Judge Hobson has this explanation for why she favored the now deceased beautician with commissioner assignments:
"Normally, it's only the lawyers who make money off the court appointment system," says the judge. "And it's always been my goal to appoint people, just ordinary people to these cases, because I'm not required to appoint lawyers. This was a woman who lived in Sunnyside, had no money, and she was one of the little people I appointed over a six-year period ... she made $18,000 [as a commissioner]."
Hobson says that unlike in other judge-commissioner relationships criticized by the media, her hairdresser "never gave me a contribution because she didn't have the money."
State law requires only that commissioners own property and not have an interest in the property being appraised. Asked whether a hairdresser is competent to appraise property, Hobson defends her choice. "Absolutely. Absolutely. The state has even written me letters in the past complimenting me on the composition of the commissions on which she served. She's now deceased. And I tell you what, I knew she had a bad heart, and I'm proud and pleased that I made the last six years of a person's life on this earth happy!"
Hobson is also proud of her endorsement by the Citizens for Qualified Judges, a mostly-Democratic judicial political action committee run by some powerhouse Houston attorneys, including anti-trust lawyer Steve Susman. But in a missive sent to several lawyers who oppose Hobson's re-election, Susman made some comments that would seem to seriously devalue his group's endorsements.
"Why do I write you both?," Susman asked rhetorically. "Because you both bitched about the same, certain county court-at-law judge that Citizens for Qualified Judges was silly enough to endorse. Normally I would disregard such complaints as coming from the oxes who were gored. Can't do that with you guys. I respect you both. You obviously are right. How did we screw up?"
Susman then went on to count the ways the PAC screwed up. "We should never have endorsed judges on a court few of us practice before," he lamented. "So, first mistake, we purported to have knowledge where we had none. Also, we tried to appear non-partisan. Second mistake, we tried to fool folks. Third mistake -- most of us on the board didn't attend the meeting where these endorsements were made."
Susman wound up promising to do better in selecting judge candidates. "Believe me," he wrote the critics, "your letter made a difference. We aren't going to do something stupid again."
And then he wrote these words: "We're stuck for now because to un-endorse would probably cause a race war, but never again."
usman offered this closing argument for joining the PAC: "We need your help and ideas. Join our board for $5,000. Then you can make the same mistakes we do."
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Contacted at his Dallas office, Susman reversed field and disavowed the sentiments expressed in the letter. "I really would appreciate your not jacking with the letter," he said. "It was not intended for anyone but these guys' eyes and it's pissed me off that they are releasing it."
Susman said he's now standing behind Hobson's re-election bid. "I don't know this lady [Hobson] from Adam. I have since found out she's a pretty good judge.... I have no personal knowledge of whether she's a good judge or a bad judge other than what I've heard, and I've heard enough good things about her since this letter not to push the organization to withdraw the endorsement." In fact, Susman said that after he wrote the letter, the full board of the Citizens for Qualified Judges met and reaffirmed the group's support for Hobson.
But what about that "race war" stuff, Steve?
"At the time I wrote that letter I really did not want to cause any major problems, racial or anything else," he explained. "This was a letter from me to two lawyers I know, pretty good friends, and I'm just furious that they have released it. They should not have done it."
In the interest of preserving old courthouse friendships, we should add that our copy arrived as an anonymous fax.