Now that virtually the entire Harris County judiciary is Republican, the influence of conservative ministers who deliver key blocks of GOP primary votes has never been stronger. Case in point: a furor raised last week among civil district judges by a Baptist minister. He is upset over routine court action changing names and gender designations for persons who have had sex-change operations and are resuming life as members of the opposite sex.
Pastor Rick Scarborough of First Baptist Church of Pearland alleges that some court approvals of changes of names and sex were being obtained to provide a legal fig leaf for same-sex marriages. He provoked the controversy by firing off a letter and packet of supporting documents to Judge John Devine.
Same-sex marriages are illegal in Texas, but after a sex-change operation, an individual may marry a person of the opposite gender. According to the minister, there is evidence that the good GOP judges were being fooled into granting the orders for persons who had not undergone the required genital alterations and wanted to marry partners of the same sex.
Devine, who originally claimed God had told him to run for office, already was refusing to handle the change orders, routinely transferring them to other courts. He circulated Scarborough's information to other judges. The packet included case analyses indicating which judges were granting the requests for changes, and a letter from transgendered lawyer Phyllis Frye thanking Judge Scott Link for his willingness to process the cases. That effectively put Link on the political hot seat.
How the pastor got Link's private correspondence is unclear, and neither Scarborough nor Link was available for comment. Frye says she may have written the letter but has no idea how the minister got it.
The allegation that the change orders are part of a scheme to obtain fraudulent marriages is apparently unfounded, but it still set off a judicial tap dance. Some judges huddled with conservative political consultant Allen Blakemore concerning the potential campaign fallout from handling the cases in the face of Scarborough's fulminations.
"The judges are kinda exercised about it," reports Blakemore. "The judges look at Scarborough and think, 'Does this mean he's going to be drumming up campaign opposition for people?' "
Other jurists, including civil administrative Judge Scott Brister, met with religious right kingmaker Dr. Steven Hotze to chew over the issue.
"I met with Hotze for about two minutes," confirms Brister, "and Hotze's position was the same as most of the judges'. If somebody has been using us to avoid the same-sex marriage ban, everybody's upset about it. But it appears that's not the case, and he's not upset about it."
Brister says the final decision made at the meeting was to assign judicial staff attorney Deborah Selden to research Scarborough's allegations.
"One of the things about name changes is you don't have two parties, just one," says the judge. "And anytime you have a situation where you have one party, sometimes you don't get the whole story."
Brister didn't explain why the civil administrative judge of Harris County felt it necessary to meet with a political figure such as Hotze to discuss judicial operations. The answer may be that Hotze's endorsement is considered crucial in contested primary races. In recent years incumbent judges who earned his wrath have been defeated by challengers backed by the westside allergist. In the current judicial atmosphere, having God on your side is nice, but having Hotze as your co-pilot when flying through political turbulence is better.
Attorney Frye has represented transgendered people in court for two decades and is concerned that the far right is playing politics with her clients' lives.
"I shuddered when you called me," says Frye, "'cause I know this is going to blow up. And I know that judges are going to get scared, and I know that transgendered people are not going to be able to get xxxtheir documents. When they can't get their documents, they can't get a job, and they'll be out on the street."
Frye says she knows of no one who fraudulently obtained a change order for a same-sex marriage. "I don't know of a single judge who will sign without a medical letter to back it up," she says.
Frye figures the only way a same-sex marriage could result from the judge's orders is if the person changing genders is already married.
"The only thing that I can figure where [Scarborough] got this fly up his butt is that I have been encouraging for a long time that if two people are already legally married, and one of them begins to go through the transition, that they stay married." Doctors used to pressure transsexuals to divorce their partners before changing sexes, explains Frye, but there is no legal mechanism to force a couple to divorce. If the union remains intact, says Frye, the result would be a de facto same-sex marriage.
Blakemore says he was not able to verify Scarborough's allegations of same-sex marriage fraud.
"He was making statements like, 'Oh, great, now that we finally get a courthouse full of Republican judges, we're now involved in a conspiracy to set up same-sex marriages,' " recalls Blakemore, who is incredulous that anyone would have such suspicions of rock-ribbed conservatives like Link.
Judge Pat Mizell, one of Blakemore's clients, calls the controversy "a tempest in a teapot" and says he'll continue to follow legal guidelines regarding such cases.
Blakemore figures judges have no reason to fear a political backlash from the right if they just do their job and follow the law.
"If it was one or two judges that had done something, it is theoretically possible they could be targeted," reasons the consultant. "But when it is as widespread as it appears to be, with virtually everybody doing it, you can't go target the entire Republican judiciary."
A Devine Way to Buy a Home
Judge John Devine had his hands full last week with more than Pastor Scarborough's allegations of same-sex marriage. Devine went to court on his own behalf to request an emergency restraining order to force open the doors of a home he and wife Nubia are purchasing from Newmark Homes Corporation on Lakeland Falls Street in Cypress.
Such orders require that the plaintiff be in imminent threat of harm and irreparable injury, and Devine showed real flair in crafting several claims to meet the legal definition.
According to Devine's filing, Newmark had assured him he would have access to the home by the time he sold his old residence. After completing the sale of his former house on June 4, the judge claimed Newmark refused to honor a commitment to let him move into the new house on a lease basis until approval of his no-income-verification loan.
His suit claimed Devine "would be irreparably injured because defendant's actions have left him without a residence when the Texas Constitution mandates that a district judge is to reside in his district during his term of office." That ignores the reality that the judge could have moved anywhere, including a guest hotel, within Harris County to satisfy the residency requirement. He and his family could have even become street people, as long as it was a street in the county.
Devine also tried out another justification in his request to Judge Sharolyn Wood. He reportedly told Wood he had an extensive gun collection and that public safety required that he have a domicile where the weapons could be kept safely under lock and key.
Faced with such legal brilliance, Wood took the safest course: She recused herself. After a visiting judge set a hearing for this week, Newmark folded its tents and allowed the judge to move into his new home immediately. Steve Vonhofe, Newmark senior vice president, tried to focus on the positive, saying the company was "delighted" to have Devine as a resident.
"Not everybody can say they have a judge as a homeowner," he said. Of course, not everybody can say they've been sued by an exceptionally well armed judge, either.
If all this seemed to happen faster than your typical court experience, keep in mind that nobody ever said the wheels of justice turn slowly for a judge.
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Framed by Big Mac
Thanks to an Insider freedom of information request, we now know the city official who approved the $8,000 for a portrait of former mayor Bob Lanier [Insider, May 27]. It is Jerry Dinkins, the former Public Works deputy assistant director who is under indictment with three other city employees for falsifying documents or evading bid laws.
Dinkins also okayed an extremely creative way to pay an extra $1,872 for a fancy gold frame for the portrait. It hung over the bed of HPD criminal sketch artist Lois Gibson for a year after she painted the mug that nobody seemed to want.
The frame was bought by the City from the lease fund for 1200 Travis, the renovated downtown police headquarters, which got its revenue from the McDonald's and Soup & Salad franchises housed in the building.
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