Technically speaking, Sim Lake isn't a criminal court judge, since he sits on the federal bench and hears both criminal and civil cases. But this year he heard the biggest white-collar-crime case to hit Houston since the Allen brothers started the ball rolling with real estate fraud. We mean, of course, the trials of Enron co-defendants Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling. Lake came from the world of defending giant corporations; but he's not been unsympathetic to government prosecutors. That balance helped ensure a fair trial, but what was more impressive was how Lake stuck to his well-known habit of never deviating from an excruciatingly planned schedule. With all the world watching, with scrums of high-priced lawyers eager to give speeches, Lake kept the complex trial moving with a minimum of fuss. What could have become a circus, or a marathon taking a year instead of four months, became a lesson on how to run a courtroom.
Mark Lanier is an ordained minister in the Church of Christ, but he's also a God-given pain in the ass to pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co. Lanier is a leading lawyer among the legions who are suing Merck over the arthritis drug Vioxx, and he was the first one out of the gate with a big, big victory: a $253 million verdict in Brazoria County last year. The boyish attorney insists he's doing the Lord's work winning his sizable victories, although those who hate plaintiff's attorneys think of him as a master of junk science and a whiz at actively recruiting perfect clients. To his clients, he's a hardworking, caring advocate who pierces through all the delays, traps and tricks that corporate lawyers specialize in. Lanier is also famous for the annual Christmas parties he hosts on his large spread north of town: Entertainment for the 8,000 or so guests includes performers such as the Dixie Chicks and Barry Manilow, and a narrow-gauge train that can hold 100 passengers. (But no liquor is served, much to the chagrin of those people reduced to surreptitious nips from contraband flasks.)
What can you say about a lawyer who's a Kinky Friedman supporter but whose most prominent client is Tom DeLay? How about: Tom DeLay sure knows who to hire when he gets indicted. Attorney Dick DeGuerin has amassed a truly eclectic clientele, including David Koresh, Kay Bailey Hutchison and Robert Durst. DeGuerin not only won an acquittal for Durst -- which ain't easy when you're representing a cross-dressing New Yorker who dismembered his neighbor and dropped the body parts in Galveston Bay -- but he also managed to get Durst the most lenient probation terms possible. (The probation is for minor stuff.) "Bob is just a normal parolee now," DeGuerin told the Houston Chronicle after getting Durst sprung from a detention center in May. Now, "normal" might not be the word we would have used, but then we don't have DeGuerin's track record of mesmerizing Texas juries.
Good civil judges tend to stay under the radar until they get a headline-making case. During that low-profile time, however, they can make life awful for an awful lot of people. Sometimes they do it through rulings that are either baffling or tend to favor one side (usually, since this is Houston, big bidness) over the other. More often, they do it in pettier ways: by being a prima donna with staff or the public; taking weeks to issue simple rulings that would move a case along; or keeping bankers' hours and showing up unprepared. Tracy Christopher of the 295th District Court is at the other end of the spectrum. Members of the Houston Bar Association consistently rank her among the top jurists -- 70 percent of the attorneys polled rated her "outstanding" in the most recent survey -- and it's because she knows how to run a tight courtroom that gives a respectful hearing to both sides. Even if it is under the radar most of the time.
If the word "bureaucrat" refers to paper-pushers, then Charles Bacarisse -- who deals with all the paper generated by judges and lawyers working in 74 courts -- is a bureaucrat of the first rank. But he's trying hard to change that. Bacarisse is leading the effort to make the district court system as paperless as possible, gently nudging the sometimes hidebound members of the legal world into accepting the wonders of the Computer Age. He's also opened up many of his office's public services to the Web; it now takes only a few clicks to reschedule your jury duty. And anyone who can take even some of the pain out of jury duty definitely deserves recognition.
For someone who has 3.6 million constituents, County Judge Robert Eckels has kept somewhat of a low profile -- which, considering the colorful, if not entirely legal, activities of some county court predecessors (like, ummm, his father), is a good thing. All that changed in 2005, when Eckels teamed with Mayor Bill White to handle the wave of evacuees from Hurricane Katrina. While FEMA flopped helplessly around, Eckels opened up the county's Astrodome and other facilities and slashed through calcified layers of bureaucracy to get relief efforts in gear. Esquire magazine named him "Citizen of the Year" and said Harris County was "an island of competence in the face of catastrophe." (That sound you hear could be White gnashing his teeth and asking "What about me?!") Eckels, a UH graduate who was first elected to the state legislature at 24, is only 49, and we're guessing that the Harris County judgeship won't be his ultimate political destination.
Bill White had some flubs in his first two and a half years as Houston's mayor: the fight against capping the city's ability to generate tax revenue, the enthusiastic push for a light rail referendum that's grown only more controversial since its passage, and the growing crime rate. But he is also remembered -- and will be for a long, long time -- for his quick, decisive, no-BS response to the wave of Katrina evacuees. Somehow he's gotten less of the spotlight than Harris County Judge Robert Eckels (probably because the Astrodome, forever linked with the hurricane response, is a county facility), but White's efforts and abilities were utterly crucial. He has always been willing to work with Republicans, sometimes to the chagrin of the city's hard-core Democrats, and as of right now, it looks like he'll cruise to a final re-election before term limits put him out of a job in 2009. Hmm -- that's just about when demographic trends have Texas becoming much more Democratic. Is Austin -- or the Senate -- calling?
Glenwood Cemetery is a treat for amateur genealogists who go to trace their family's history back to the Civil War. Headstones dating to the 19th century are scattered throughout Glenwood's woodsy 84 acres, which house the remains of three Texas governors, more than 20 Houston mayors and a bevy of lesser-known architects, clergy, educators, lawmakers, judges and philanthropists. The 130-year-old graveyard, located just northwest of downtown, offers an idyllic setting in which to reflect upon these monumental contributors to our fair city.
Veterans know that if they're going to the 9 a.m. or 11 a.m. mass on Sundays at St. Vincent de Paul, they'd better get there early: Good seats go fast. Why? A welcoming, friendly atmosphere, engaging sermons and a dedication to helping the greater community. Parishioners were at the forefront of offering shelter, food and clothing to Katrina evacuees, an effort that was merely an extension of what they do throughout the year. The thriving church has its share of high-income members -- it's located near West U on Holcombe -- but it's by no means one of the Our Lady of Cadillacs-type Catholic churches found in other affluent enclaves around the country.
The Bolivar Ferry has been entertaining kids for more than 70 years. Shuttling back and forth between Galveston and the Bolivar Peninsula, the boats often attract frolicking dolphins as escorts. You can head to the back with some bread or chips and feed the seagulls by hand as they politely hover near you. You'll pass the sunken remains of an experimental World War I concrete ship (how did that idea never catch on?), cruise past giant container ships heading for the Ship Channel, feel the wind and sun on your face and smell the saltwater (and, unfortunately, the Ship Channel). Each crossing lasts a kid-friendly 20 minutes, long enough to entertain without getting boring. And it's free! Best tip: Leave your car and just walk on, thereby avoiding the sometimes lengthy waits vehicles endure.

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