Have You Heard the One About Judge Jim Barr?
Judge Jim Barr, for all intents and purposes, is on trial for his judicial life," intoned lawyer George Parnham last week during opening arguments of a hearing convened by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct at South Texas College of Law.
The snowy-haired Barr's physical appearance didn't contradict his attorney's words. The normally cocksure, wisecracking state district judge slouched speechless in the dock before special magistrate Noah Kennedy, his pale, pinched face as mirthless as that of his wife, fellow criminal court Judge Jeannine Barr, who sat directly behind her husband wearing a similar expressionless mask.
Jim Barr certainly didn't seem in the mood to beckon to bystanders with a crooked finger and declare, "I just wanted to see if I could make you come with one finger," as he did from his bench to assistant district attorney Sally Ring, one of the prosecutors assigned to try cases in his court. In fact, he looked, to paraphrase a threatening rebuke he meted out last year to Ring, like someone had slapped the crap out of him.
And maybe, with good reason, they had.
The Commission on Judicial Conduct proceeding, which thus far has cost Barr at least $10,000 in legal fees paid from his campaign account, could result in a public reprimand or possibly the appointment of a seven-member tribunal of state appeals judges to weigh Barr's removal from his 337th District Court bench. The nine-year Republican jurist is accused of violating the constitutional rights of a deputy and behaving in a manner that discredits the Texas judiciary. The seriousness of the inquiry is reflected in the numbers: 114 Texas judges over the past 14 years have chosen to resign rather than face the same type of proceeding.
The hearing was continuing as we went to press this week. After it concludes, Kennedy will review the evidence and the matter will go back to the judicial conduct commission for further consideration. It will likely be months before Barr learns his fate, and he will have the opportunity to appeal any judgment against him to the Texas Supreme Court.
The judge's loose lips and courtroom antics have put him in the cross hairs of two very different posses. One complaint against Barr was lodged by District Attorney Johnny Holmes and grew out of Barr's repeated sexist and somewhat creepy remarks to the female prosecutors Holmes once assigned to Barr's court --Ring, Luci Davidson and Kim Parks. The other involves the arrest order Barr issued for sheriff's deputy Paul Rendon after Rendon failed to answer a defense lawyer's subpoena to appear in court. Barr's order outraged area lawmen and triggered a vendetta by the Harris County Deputies Organization, which tried to have the judge indicted on charges of official oppression. When a grand jury refused to indict Barr, the deputies' organization sought redress on Rendon's behalf from the judicial commission.
By jailing Rendon, the son of the Aldine school district police chief, and setting his bond at $50,000, a level commensurate with that for defendants accused of serious felonies, Barr had initially intended to "send a message" to peace officers who ignore subpoenas from defense lawyers. Now the situation is reversed, as the complaints by the district attorney and the deputies' union could send a very different message to Texas judges: Mess with prosecutors and law enforcement personnel at the risk of your job.
As his penchant for off-color repartee might suggest, Barr is not your typical Republican criminal-court judge. Unlike most of his colleagues, who toiled as prosecutors under Holmes before winning election to the bench, Barr hails from the defense side of the criminal bar. In the mid-eighties, he was just another lawyer roaming the halls of 301 San Jacinto, one of those who spent his days drifting from one hospitable court to another, hoping to snag appointments from friendly judges to represent indigent defendants.
"I remember him as pretty lazy," recalls one acquaintance. "He'd hang out in particular courts as long as they would get him an appointment a day. Woody Densen was one of his favorites."
Barr ran unsuccessfully for a county court-at-law judgeship in 1986, but sailed into the 337th District Court post two years later, buoyed by nothing much beyond the filing fee he paid to get on the ballot and the rising Republican tide in Harris County. Barr had always considered himself a bit of a jokester, and with the power of his new judicial status, he could be sure of an ever-appreciative circle of lawyers and court employees who would laugh at his every wisecrack.
"He's cutting and nasty, and not just to women," says a lawyer who has tried cases in Barr's court. "He has a mean-spirited edge to him, and it's across-the-board. I don't know whether he's been hardened by judicial service, or he's just naturally a mean-spirited prick."
Barr met and married prosecutor Jeannine, who then followed in her husband's footsteps by running and winning election to the bench in 1994. In a lunchtime conversation, Barr once jovially commented to another lawyer that he had to work in his wife's campaign "or she won't spread her legs for me."
One thing Jeannine Barr will not currently do for her husband is pose for a photo with him. "I have my own political career to consider," she explained last week in declining to stand still for a photo op with Gentleman Jim. Her post comes up for election next year.
Barr's comments and gestures cited by the judicial commission allegedly violate portions of the Texas constitution that hold a judge can be removed from office for "willful or persistent conduct that is clearly inconsistent with the proper performance of his duties or casts public discredit upon the judiciary or administration of justice."
The particular incidents include the judge's laughing courtroom instruction to an emissary of defense lawyer Kent Schaffer to tell Schaffer to "go screw himself" for seeking a continuance in a case. Then there was the November day two years ago when Davidson, the chief prosecutor in Barr's court, informed the judge she was going to her office to wait for a jury's verdict. Barr allegedly replied, "You are so nice to look at ... if you leave, all I'll have to look at all afternoon is swinging dicks."
During the time Davidson and her two female colleagues were assigned to Barr's court, the judge referred to them as "the all-babe court" and to Davidson as his "chief babe."
Barr also tried out his hoary "make you come with one finger" joke on Kim Parks at a Christmas party at his home in December 1995. Later at the same get-together, he observed to the purse-carrying Davidson that she must be on her period because "women always carry around their purses when they're on their period."
Davidson and Parks testified at the commission hearing last week that they were not offended by the remarks and simply smiled.
Perhaps Barr's most egregious comment was to Ring on January 24 of last year. She had irritated the judge by deciding to try a sexual abuse case, despite admitted defects in the indictment of the defendant, and by repeatedly asking a witness similar questions after Barr sustained the defense lawyer's objections.
Barr summoned Ring and the defense attorney to his bench and verbally lashed the prosecutor. "You're out of line," the judge snapped. "I feel like coming across the bench and slapping the crap out of you."
In a complaint she later filed with her supervisors, Ring said she felt "extremely threatened" by the remark.
Barr, in an informal meeting with the Commission on Judicial Conduct earlier this year, acknowledged he might have taken a different tack with Ring. Still, he was unwilling to concede that his comment was worthy of disciplinary action, much less a judicial beheading. "I don't believe that admonishment I gave her, outside the hearing of the jury," Barr told the commission, "was such that it should be grounds for some form of complaint."
To District Attorney Holmes, the most offensive bit of Barr-room conduct was the judge's "come with one finger" remark to Ring from his bench on January 11, 1996. "The attorney is subservient to the judge," explains the D.A. "That's why the judge sits on the bench above everybody else. He's the referee. He sets the decorum, the whole demeanor for what goes on in there. You can't fight back with those people."
While Barr's comments to the women are the most inflammatory portion of the judicial commission's bill of particulars, Parnham believes that the jailing of deputy Rendon is the real reason his client's job is hanging in the balance.
The deputies' union is a force in local judicial politics. One courthouse observer recalls that the group targeted Judge Norman Lanford for defeat after the judge threw out a murderer's confession taken by a deputy. The deputies' organization helped recruit prosecutor Caprice Cosper, who unseated Lanford in the 1992 Republican primary.
Parnham claims the union is engaged in an effort "to show judges that they will not be permitted to treat deputies in the same way that any citizen in this community would and should be treated if that citizen disobeys a lawful court order."
Rendon had been one of the first deputies at the scene of a 1995 bank robbery and had collected photos and videotape from bank personnel. Although he had turned over those materials to investigators, he was subpoenaed by a defense lawyer to produce the photos when a suspect in the robbery appeared in Barr's court. Rendon claims that he called a supervisor and told him he did not have the evidence, and was told not to worry about it.
Rendon did not show up in court as directed on December 19, 1995, although he said last week that he contacted the court deputy and was put on call. The deputy testified that Rendon never phoned. In any case, Rendon said he never heard from the court until January 17, 1996, when an angry Barr issued a writ of attachment ordering Rendon to be held in custody, then set the $50,000 bond to make sure the deputy could not bail himself out.
In a display of blunt talk he later came to regret, Barr informed the lawyers for the deputy and Scott Durfee, the counsel to Holmes, that he wanted to hold Rendon overnight to send a message to law officers that they must honor subpoenas from defense lawyers. Barr told the pair he wanted Rendon "to smell the smells" of the jail and refused to set a simple fine, explaining, "I want to be a small asshole, not a big asshole." The judge later explained that he thought a fine would be a harsher penalty than an overnight jail stay. Rendon actually spent the night in an office at the jail and was released the next morning. The incident led to an investigation by the district attorney of Barr's actions.
It was around the same time that Ring filed her complaint with superiors over Barr's comments. Parnham believes Ring was trying to help the district attorney build a criminal case against Barr -- a notion Holmes finds laughable.
Holmes claims there's no connection between the investigation of Barr for official oppression of the deputy and the complaints of his prosecutors. In fact, he says he never believed there was much of a criminal case to be made against Barr for jailing Rendon.
"I was not impressed at all with what Barr did to the deputy as a criminal matter," says Holmes. "It wasn't one of those things that had all that much pizzazz. But the deputies' union, they were pushing, [asking], 'When are we going to take this to the grand jury?' I wasn't expecting an indictment. I was trying to get the deputies' union and the lawyer repre-sentative off my back about him committing a crime."
The grand jury chose not to indict Barr, and Holmes and the deputies' union then filed their complaints with the judicial conduct commission. After an informal session with Barr in Austin in January, the commission voted to conduct the current hearing.
This isn't the first time the commission has scrutinized Barr's actions. He had previously been privately reprimanded for using "profane" and "vulgar" language to young probationers in his court. In a 1994 letter to the commission, Barr explained, "It is my view that speaking to [probationers] in their own vernacular serves to get and keep their attention."
Still, the possibility of Barr's ouster has surprised many courthouse regulars, for whom rough language and profanity are part of the daily routine. Holmes himself says he didn't think much would come of it when he filed his complaint with the commission on behalf of his employees, but he figures the commission is privy to other damaging information on Barr which has influenced its current proceeding against the judge. Parnham says he's unaware of other complaints against Barr.
Defense lawyer David Jones, a Democratic activist who has tried cases in Barr's court and has found him to be "fair," points out that if foul mouths were grounds for disqualifying Harris County judges, there would be plenty of Help Wanted signs at the various courts.
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"People say outrageous things around that courthouse all day long," says Jones. "It's just a weird place full of weirdoes saying strange things." And with each partisan tide washing in judges with not much more in the way of qualifications than a bar card and the money to cover a filing fee, Jones rates Barr as one of the better criminal district judges.
Judge Jim Wallace occasionally popped up in the audience to monitor the Barr hear-ing last week, saying he and other judges are concerned that the complaints against Barr may presage similar attacks on other jurists.
That's a notion Jones seconds: "It's going to open up the floodgates if they're not careful. You go after one judge for these kinds of comments and a lot of people are going to get it in their minds that, 'Hey, it might be easy to take a few other of these suckers out.' "
In Barr's case, the damage may already be done. Even if he manages to escape judicial execution at the hands of the commission, somebody will no doubt be reminding voters of all his favorite one-liners when his job comes up for election in 2000.