The Worst Judge in Harris County?

It's 1:30 in the afternoon, and the judge is staring out ominously over the courtroom. A faint smile crosses her lips. She wears black robes and holds a law text in her hands.

Several people in the courtroom stare back at the portrait of Justice of the Peace Betty Brock Bell and wonder ... where is she?

The portrait is about the only thing worth gazing at in the otherwise drab courtroom, which holds 11 oak pews, one standard-issue clock and two lecterns. Today, a woman in a flowered muumuu, a man in navy slacks with no hem and another in pale blue scrubs are among those waiting silently for their day in court.

They all have been accused of going 70 in a 55 mph zone.
About ten minutes later Bell slips into her seat on the bench next to her lifelike portrait, creating the eerie effect of two Judge Betty Brock Bells holding court.

A silver-haired man in white shirt and tie sidles up to one lectern and pleads not guilty to breaking the speed limit. He just bought a new car, he says, and "it rides so smooth, I didn't know how fast I was going." Bell listens patiently to his explanation and other exculpatory tales from Houston's roadways. Within an hour, she's run through about a dozen traffic cases.

On any given day Bell moves people through her courtroom at the rate of about one every two minutes, sometimes handling up to 50 cases in an afternoon. That's how it's supposed to be in JP courtrooms -- the so-called "people's courts," where justice is meted swiftly and efficiently, dress is "come as you are" and lawyers are scarce.

And to a casual observer, nothing seems awry here expect the ceiling panels, which are either peeling or missing in the dimly lit hallways of the courthouse annex at the corner of Greenbriar and O.S.T.

So why has Betty Brock Bell, justice of the peace, Precinct 7, Position 1, gotten tagged as the worst judge in Harris County?

Maybe it's not a widely held perception, but Bell fared poorest among the 158 judges -- state, county, federal and municipal -- who were rated in the Houston Bar Association's 1995 Judicial Evaluation Poll. When the survey was released a few months ago, almost 79 percent of the lawyers who offered their opinions on Bell had rated her "poor" in her overall performance on the bench. She was the only elected judge whose "poor" rating was more than 50 percent.

Lawyers left the impression that Bell wasted their time, wasn't fair and didn't follow the law.

But Bell, who suggests she doesn't pay lawyers the special deference many feel they deserve, says there's another side to the story.

Betty Brock Bell seems puzzled -- and slightly annoyed -- when a reporter calls to ask about her showing in the bar poll. She wants to talk about it in person, not over the phone.

The first thing you notice about Bell is that she's a lot shorter than she appears on the bench. In fact, she will tell you she's about five feet, three inches tall. As a little girl she dreamed of being an airline stewardess, but she was three inches too short when the time came to apply.

Bell is dressed in a smart black suit with hot pink trim. An attractive woman of 46, she was born and raised in Wharton, the daughter of a sales clerk and a construction worker. She was first elected to her post in 1985. Her ascension to the bench wasn't easy.

During the '70s, Bell had worked as chief clerk for Justice of the Peace Surrey E. Davis, learning the legal ropes from a man she admired and considers her mentor. When Davis died in 1979, she ran the campaign for his seat by Cecil Bush.

But one month after Bush won the election, he fired Bell as the court's chief clerk.

Furious, and feeling there were far better candidates for the seat, Bell fought back by trying to find someone to run against Bush in the next Democratic primary. When there were no takers, she decided to run herself and won, becoming the first black woman elected as a justice of the peace in Texas.

Bell has stood for election unopposed over the past decade, with various would-be challengers withdrawing before the balloting. Her face registers genuine surprise when asked about a rumor that former City Councilwoman Beverley Clark may run against her next year -- as if she were wounded briefly by friendly fire.

In her chambers behind the courtroom, Bell has built a comfortable nest over the years. It's decorated with awards, family photos and a plush green velvet sofa -- making it the only pleasant oasis in a tattered county building that has the distinction of also housing the Mosquito Control District.