UPDATED Houston Lawyers Call for Judge Denise Pratt to Step Down
Thirty-two family law attorneys have signed a letter calling for the resignation of Harris County Family Court Judge Denise Pratt, who is accused of backdating records.
Lawyer Greg Enos of Webster last month filed a complaint against Pratt with the Harris County District Attorney's Office, likening her to "a 4th grader who, on the day after parents got the report with the 'F' for not doing homework, stayed up late and did her homework assignments and dated them six weeks before."
Pratt's lead clerk retired after Enos publicly aired his complaint.
The Houston Chronicle reported that "county and other sources" say the DA's Office's public integrity unit is "looking into" Enos's allegations and "has contacted attorneys to arrange interviews."
According to Enos, Pratt would "rush and create an order or ruling and backdate the document as if she had done what she was supposed to have done weeks or months before" only when the Court of Appeals -- or Enos, in his newsletter -- "publicly chastised" the judge.
Now, Enos has found some confederates to publicly back him up: Thirty-two attorneys have put their names to a letter, dated November 3 and sent to other family lawyers, asking them "to join in our effort to get Judge Denise Pratt off the bench for the good of the family bar, the families and children of Harris County, and the many excellent family court judges whose re-elections might be endangered with Judge Pratt on the same ballot with them."
The letter states that the lawyers who signed their names are "'sticking our necks out' to stand up for what is right" and are asking others to contact the DA's Public Integrity Unit if they know of other backdated orders.
It also states: "For too long, a 'Code of Silence' has prevailed in family law that kept attorneys from speaking out about Judges who were really, really bad and not following the law [sic].....speaking out about this very serious situation is the right thing to do and will ultimately protect our current and future clients."
We've reached out to Pratt for a comment and will update if and when we hear back. We've also reached out to some of the attorneys listed under the "prior endorsements" section on her site and will also update accordingly.
According to Pratt's campaign Web site, she was appointed by Governor Rick Perry to the Texas Board of Social Worker Examiners in 2007, and is a member of the Texas Tea Party Republican Women, Magic Circle Republican Women, Daughters of Liberty, Ronald Reagan Republican Women and others.
The "prior endorsements" listed on her site include the Houston Police Officers' Union, the Houston Chronicle and the National Latino Peace Officers' Association-Southeast Harris County Chapter, among others.
UPDATE: Pratt's criminal defense attorney Terry Yates tells us that his client has done nothing illegal and is cooperating with authorities in order to "get to the bottom" of things. He also alleged that the Harris County District Clerk's Office has had a problem with filing Pratt's orders in a timely manner, and that Pratt has been working with the Clerk's Office on the issue for months, even before Enos publicly raised the allegations. Yates also told us the allegations are politically motivated.
However, Harris County District Clerk Chris Daniel has a slightly different story. he told us that, based on a preliminary review, Pratt did not notify his office of any alleged issues involving backlogging (a build-up of court documents that haven't been filed) until after the 14th Court of Appeals partially granted a writ of mandamus -- Latin for "when a judge screws up and doesn't do their job, yo" -- against Pratt, in a case where she failed to rule on a parent's visitation rights for over ten months. (More on that in a bit).
Daniel told us that the first his office learned of any possible concerns about the 311th Court was from Enos in October, other than that Pratt told the District Clerk's Office that she needed earlier notification of clerks' vacation times.
He said his staff immediately conducted their own investigation, resulting in the resignation of Pratt's lead clerk, a 25-year veteran. Daniel also said that his staff quickly remedied any filing problems, but they're still getting more complaints from litigants in Pratt's court who say they've been screwed. These complaints are immediately corrected and sent to the District Attorney's Office for review, Daniel said. (A spokesperson for the DA's Office has said they cannot confirm or deny if its Public Integrity Unit is investigating the allegations.)
Daniel also pointed out that nearly all of Enos' allegations focus on people other than District Clerk's Office staff, and that the District Clerk's Office looked into the one allegation specifically directed at the aforementioned clerk.
Enos and other lawyers say the whole backdating problem arises from Pratt allowing cases to languish for months, and that such inaction unfairly (and unconstitutionally) penalizes many families in her court.
A three-judge panel of the 14th Court of Appeals apparently agreed: in their opinion, the judges stated that Pratt hadn't ruled for more than ten months on a visitation motion, and that "a parent's right to access to his child is a fundamental liberty interest more precious than property rights." (Hair Balls would equivocate -- it sorta depends on how cute the kid in question is, and whether the property is a really cool car, or perhaps an oil well. But we digress.) The judges also wrote that "it is the public policy of this state to assure that children have frequent and continuing contact with parents who have shown the ability to act in their best interest...."
The panel did not rule on whether Pratt should decide in favor of the parent seeking visitation, and instead ordered her to get off her judicial keister and make a decision already.
Send your story tips to the author, Craig Malisow.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.