The proceeding before Judge Kent Ellis two weeks ago was odd even by the standards of the Harris County courts complex, where idiosyncratic judges flourish like toads in summer rain and almost every bizarre twist of the judicial process that can happen already has.
There was fellow juvenile Judge Patrick Scott Shelton lumbering out of the witness box to show a jury how the six-foot, 220-pound jurist had stripped off his judicial robe like a cape in a reverse Superman act. Then he described how he came flying down from his bench to help restrain a 15-year-old Latino youth who had just assaulted a bailiff in his own court several weeks earlier.
To demonstrate his feat of derring-do, the balding, round-faced Shelton stepped behind prosecutor Kris Moore and thrust his hands beneath her armpits. He pulled back the shoulders of the thin, scholarly-looking woman, pinning her arms. His court personnel and several attorneys close to Shelton testified the judge had saved the day on May 4 by immobilizing Sergio Reyes after the husky teen punched bailiff Mark Whited in the chest.
Yes, Shelton aw-shucked to jurors, it wasn't even the first time he'd faced a rebelling defendant. As a Harris County prosecutor more than a decade ago, he chased a felon who fled the courtroom. Shelton caught that fugitive, albeit with a little help from bystanders.
That's the way the 48-year-old judge likes to be seen, as a defender of law and order. The jury convicted Reyes of assaulting the bailiff, but the verdict is still out on some of Shelton's own offbeat court procedures.
The youth's mother and a court translator testified that Shelton's sarcastic baiting of the mother about her Mexican roots and lack of English partially precipitated the son's outburst in court.
The Mexican American Bar Association questions whether the judge is using his bench to insult Latinos and wage a personal war against Hispanic heritage.
Criticism extends far beyond cultural arenas, into Shelton's operation of a sort of budget legal service out of his courtroom. Families, even those who may be eligible for free representation, have been told to show up in court with $150 in cash to pay for quick legal service from attorneys Shelton has standing by -- lawyers who have helped fatten his own campaign coffers.
Shelton credits what he calls the streamlining of his court with intercepting delinquents at an early stage and reducing youth crime. But that arrangement is decried by another juvenile law judge and assorted legal scholars, one of whom calls it "outrageous." His critics say his court is hell-bent on speed at the expense of justice.
Shelton holds forth -- or rather fort -- in a courtroom he has adorned with $1,800 worth of battle flags commemorating the Republic of Texas's victory over Mexico.
"Come and Take It," taunts one of the flags to a long-vanished army of Mexican soldiers. "Victory or Death" is emblazoned on another. In a decorative display of weirdness, a gigantic piece of driftwood lifts its twisted spikes from the center of the table in Shelton's courtroom where attorneys sit facing the judge's bench.
His route to the judgeship was as offbeat as his decorations. The Kermit native got a masters in education in 1975 and taught at the State School for the Retarded and the Spring Branch Independent School District, where he was a junior high school coach. He graduated from the University of Houston law school in 1983. Shelton was a Harris County assistant district attorney for three years before going into private practice with traffic ticket king David Sprecher.
Shelton beat two other unknowns in the 1994 GOP primary with the help of conservative activist Steven Hotze's endorsement. Then Shelton ousted appointed Democrat incumbent Ramona John as Republicans swept the county's contested judicial races.
As a prosecutor in 1985, Shelton gained a theft conviction against a black City of Houston employee, Edgar Arnold. An appeals court overturned the verdict and ordered a new trial. Appellate justices ruled that Shelton had wrongfully struck seven blacks and one Hispanic from the jury pool to create an all-white jury. Asked about it recently, the judge could not recall the case, although he allowed that "the name sounds familiar."
And to critics, the assault case of Sergio Reyes carried familiar overtones about Shelton's unorthodox court procedures.
Carlos Conde is a disabled former merchant seaman who contracts with the county to provide translator services in the courts. Alone among Shelton's court personnel, the thin, nervous Conde gave a startlingly different account of the judge's behavior surrounding the assault by defendant Reyes against bailiff Mark Whited. Reyes was before the judge on charges stemming from his scuffle with security guards during his arrest for shoplifting. Conde's version of the later events in Shelton's court:
The judge inflamed the situation by asking the boy's mother, Marina, a series of insulting questions, including an incredulous sneer when he told her: "You've been in this country 20 years and you can't speak English?" Shelton inquired about where she was from. When she said Piedras Negras, Coahuila, he whipped out an atlas and began studying it, then said, "but that's nothing but desert." After a few more exchanges between the mother and judge, her son shouted, "This is my case. Leave my mother alone!"
"You're fucking crazy if you try to lock me up," the youth shouted at the judge. The mother also became hysterical and began sobbing. "If you lock him up, you'll have to lock me up," she said.
That account by Conde was disputed by the judge and his court associates, who also challenged a witness's version of the altercation. Associates said Shelton played a major role in subduing the teenager and throwing him to the floor. The contradictory witness says the judge did not come down from the bench until the youth was already cuffed and restrained, then Shelton gratuitously shoved him in the back.
Further, after the scuffle ended, Shelton reportedly huffed, "Next time I'll use my gun!"
The Houston Mexican American Bar Association, already concerned by reports of discrimination in Shelton's court, got Hispanic rights activist Frumencio Reyes (no relation to the defendant) to represent the youth in the assault case. "I know what these people were going through, and especially the kid," commented Reyes, after the trial and conviction. "When the judge is questioning Mom about where she's from, what she's doing here, why Mexico, where's your husband, why is he in jail, the kid was getting as upset as the mother.
"Those of us culturally close to Mexico know it is a very serious matter to insult a mother and that it is taken more seriously than if the insult is directed to the person himself. When the insult comes through the mother, we just don't take that sitting down."
Shelton denied much of what was said by defense witnesses. In his own testimony, Shelton described his personality as having "a flat affect," but there was no mistaking his attitude in court that day. His demeanor projected both smugness and a disdain for the questions by the defense attorney.
"I had, in my opinion, a respectful conversation," Shelton recalls of his talk with Marina Reyes, of which no court record was made. "I understand after the kid blew up and there's no defense for the kid, what are you going to do but play the race card? It's really an ethnicity card. What else can you do? You've got no defense."
As for what happens to court workers who do not back up their boss, after the Reyes incident Shelton banned translator Carlos Conde and his assistant from getting assignments in his court. In testimony, Shelton accused the translator of failing to interpret some of the comments of Sergio and Marina Reyes during the courtroom incident. He claimed the ban resulted from that, and was not retaliation for Conde's testimony.
Attorney Reyes and Mexican-American bar president-elect Joel Salazar see something darker and uglier in the judge's courtroom behavior than simple law-and-order fervor: a nativism toward people from south of the border that finds its outlet in sarcastic, demeaning questioning of minority families and children in his court.
According to witnesses, Shelton delights in pulling out an atlas and pinpointing the respondents' home towns in Mexico, ridicules longtime residents if they cannot speak English, often forces youths to lift their shirts to display tattoos, and tells them the first thing he's going to get them is a haircut.
Salazar likens Shelton to a former county criminal court judge, Jimmie Duncan, who was renowned for racially tinged comments in his court. "He was, to a lot of us, an avowed racist," Salazar says of Duncan, "while others defend his conduct as he was just a 'good ol' boy' judge who doesn't mean any harm. To us who are more sophisticated, that's Klannish thinking. I'm not saying Pat Shelton is 100 percent racist, but there is too much smoke for there to be no fire on this."
Former Harris County Juvenile Probation director Teresa Ramirez ran against Shelton in his successful re-election last year. Now she directs the Center for Youth Policy Development at the University of Houston. She claims she started getting complaints about Shelton shortly after he took the bench in 1995.
"People would call and say he badgers Hispanic families, asking them if they can speak English, and he insults them and says they've been here in this country a long time and how come they have not adjusted to the culture. He asks them if they have family outside the United States, and if they do say yes, he threatens to detain the child because he doesn't want the child sent to families outside the jurisdiction, which is really an unfair situation."
Shelton's critics extend beyond former political opponents or Hispanics. Even fellow juvenile court Judge Mary Craft isn't surprised by the complaints against him. "I've heard a lot of that," says Craft. "From a lot of different people. I've heard it from Child Advocate volunteers, I've heard it from other lawyers, from a lot of people. And it's gone on from day one."
Shelton denies he discriminates against anyone and says his questions from the bench are motivated by valid concerns.
"When you're told that somebody says they are going to abscond and flee, and you ask where they're going, and they tell you a country, that is the only question in my mind that's appropriate. 'You're not coming to court? Where are you going?'
"Now how in the heck can that be considered a racist question?"
Verifying claims against Shelton is difficult because, unlike those of other juvenile judges in the county, Shelton's interviews with families from his bench are rarely taken down by a court reporter. The judge is also insulated by a cushion of court staffers and lawyers who depend on his favor for their livings.
A source familiar with Shelton's court credits the judge with good intentions but admits he's a handful.
"The guy is weird enough, and a lot of the things that he comes up with are outlandish. There's a number of things he does that make life around here just miserable.
"But I can tell you, I give my word, he's well intended. He doesn't do this to hurt anybody."
Asked about any biases by Shelton, this source laughs. "It's not with just Hispanic parents. He can be a very annoying person. I think he's 'ambi-unfair,' an equal-opportunity annoying person. I don't know that it has as much to do with Hispanics as much as it does that his sense of humor is just not appreciated by that many people."
Another courts observer found little to laugh about in Shelton's behavior during a proceeding to terminate parental rights.
"The mother asked for a court-appointed attorney, and the answer he gave her was he just laughed at her. He didn't say yes, or no, but just continued on. Whether she deserved an attorney or not, she deserved an answer," recalls the source. "And that wasn't right."
The Mexican-American bar is taking action on complaints about Shelton's conduct in court. President-elect Salazar says MABA's civil rights committee has invited Shelton to appear before it and explain his actions. Meanwhile, the group is also preparing a complaint to the state's judicial conduct commission.
However, more questions linger over Shelton's court operations. The District Attorney's Office last week said it will be looking into allegations about the judge's odd method of appointing attorneys to represent defendants in his court.
It's morning docket call in Shelton's 313th District Court, a week after the Reyes incident. All three juvenile courts are crowded, but Shelton's seems more of a circus than the others. Out in the hallways, lawyers introduce themselves to families and huddle to chew over their cases.
Youths are checked in by probation officers and clerks, then summoned to the bench along with their parents. A Hispanic couple and son take their turn before Shelton and are quickly processed. The judge issues an order appointing a lawyer for the family in front of him. As Shelton often does, he selects his close friend and former colleague at the District Attorney's Office, John Phillips, a defense attorney. Phillips and his law partner, Glenn Devlin, just happened to be two of the men in the court who helped wrestle Sergio Reyes to the ground during the altercation.
After introducing the attorney, the judge tells the family, "You go outside, and I'm going to have him give you folks legal advice."
Up to this point, the process is much like those in other courts in the county. But these families, when they get notice of their day in court, also get notified to bring along $150 in cash if they do not have a lawyer.
Phillips explains that the judge often asks parents, "Do you have your money today?" If they say yes, he says, "Go out and start working on your case."
Under this system, the lawyers pocket the cash or -- more infrequently -- checks out in the hallway while dispensing "legal advice" to their instant clients. Because cash can't bounce, a participant in the system says it is the favored mode of payment.
The Reyes assault trial inadvertently revealed this novel -- and potentially controversial -- facet of Shelton's court operation. Marina Reyes was qualified as an indigent, but she says she followed instructions and scraped together $90 in cash to pay a court-appointed attorney at her appearance before Shelton.
Shelton claims poor families like his method of appointment because it gets them lawyers at a bargain-basement rate. Other sources say many of the families, particularly the Spanish-speaking respondents, are under the impression the judge has ordered them to take a particular attorney.
The judge also links the eventual processing of a case to the repayment of legal fees by the family. His rather distinctive "Motion for the Appointment of an Attorney" order reads this way: "I understand that if I am unable to hire an attorney or pay the $150 per court appearance to an appointed lawyer, that the judge will appoint an attorney. All attorney fee costs will be taxed as costs at the end of the case as a condition of probation or parole."
Shelton dismisses questions about the propriety of the cash "appointments" as much ado about nothing. According to the judge, they represent less than 10 percent of the hundreds of cases that come before him monthly.
Families often come to their first setting in juvenile court without an attorney, forcing the judge to reset the case and slowing down the processing of the matter. According to Harris County Juvenile Probation Director Elmer Bailey, Shelton hit on the system as a way to get the case disposed of at that first court appearance.
"Anybody who speaks to you at any length about Shelton will tell you the man is obsessed with efficiency, with speed," says Bailey. Instead of resetting the case, as other judges do, "he says, 'Well, we're going to hear the case. I'll get you an attorney, we're gonna get you in the court, off the docket, no more missed time, no more fooling around, we're going to do disposition, and we'll just work this attorney money out in this variety of ways.'
"Believe me, I've got ten other examples of ways he drives me crazy with this efficiency thing," says Bailey. "He doesn't do 'resets,' he just doesn't prolong the matters, and the fact is, most of these cases are really pretty clear-cut."
If they have the money, the family is quickly assigned a lawyer from a pool of attorneys in the court. But many of the families have yet to be evaluated by a juvenile probation officer as to whether they are poor enough to qualify for a free court-appointed lawyer.
"Again, because of this obsession for efficiency, a very disproportionate number of families who show up have never even seen the probation department," confirms Bailey. "These people haven't even gotten service [from a constable] yet. We literally call them up and say, 'You've got to be in court.' They haven't even met with us." And they haven't had a financial study to determine if they qualify for a free court-appointed lawyer.
If the family arrives without money, Bailey says, Shelton is more than likely to appoint a free lawyer. But if they have money, the legal show is ready to roll. Bailey himself says he wasn't aware that cash exchanges are taking place outside the courtroom, and allows as that might not be a good idea. "I think the whole idea of cash, as opposed to something traceable, like a check, that would be a bad idea," says Bailey.
State Senator Rodney Ellis maneuvered a controversial bill through the Legislature this session to strip criminal judges of the power to appoint attorneys paid out of public funds, only to have Governor George w. Bush veto it at the behest of GOP judges. Shelton's system is one step beyond what Ellis sought to stop. Shelton gets families, rather than the county, to pay for the lawyers he appoints for them.
University of Texas law professor Robert Dawson, an expert on juvenile law, sucked in his breath when Shelton's appointment system was outlined to him. "That's too bizarre for words," exclaimed Dawson. "Outrageous. That's O-U-T-R-A-G-E-O-U-S."
The professor explains why. "It is the judge's responsibility to determine whether the family is indigent. If they are indigent, it's his job to appoint the attorney and the county's job to pay for the lawyer, and at the end of the road, the family or the kid can be required to reimburse the county." According to Dawson, Shelton's method puts the cart before the horse.
University of Houston ethics professor Steve Schuwerk questions how a family can be required to pay a lawyer if indigence status has not been established. Just because someone brings $150 to court doesn't mean they are not indigent.
"Even indigent people have some money," says Schuwerk. "They can borrow money, they can not feed their children for the next two weeks, they can do something that lets them come up with the money. I would imagine there is no statutory basis for him doing this."
Shelton disagrees. "In my opinion," he says, "a judge can appoint a lawyer to represent somebody if [the family] has the funds, and in effect that becomes a retained attorney, and there is no appointment."
Fellow Judge Craft, whose relations with Shelton constitute a juvenile judiciary cold war, had this to say about her colleague's appointment system.
"If the ends justified the means, and the end is court efficiency," commented the judge, "you could say nobody could have a trial, or nobody could have a lawyer, I guess."
Shelton's frequent court appointee John Phillips sees nothing wrong with cash appointments except that he would like bigger fees from families. He argues that they are getting a quality of legal representation far above what their money would buy outside Shelton's court.
"They're getting me for 150 bucks," says the 18-year legal veteran. "Let me tell you something. They ain't gonna do any better than that. If that same family called me on their own, I wouldn't take it for 150 bucks. They'd have to pay me a lot more."
From Phillips' perspective, the only bad thing about Shelton's system is what happens if he doesn't work out disposition of the case that same day. "If we have to reset it, you know when they come back, they ain't going to have any [money]."
That points to the obvious: If a lawyer is unlikely to get further payments from a lengthy representation, it makes financial sense to plead the client out or seek some other immediate conclusion to the case that might not be the best outcome from the client's perspective.
One reason so many families arrive in Shelton's court unprepared is that he routinely sets a shorter period of time than other juvenile judges between the initial legal notice to the family and the first court date. And it used to be worse.
"We've gotten him to stretch it out to two weeks, but before we raised hell, it was like seven to ten days," says Juvenile Probation Director Bailey. "It's this whole speedy justice thing taken to the max."
Because time is too short, Shelton often takes over the role of a juvenile probation officer in interviewing the family.
"He calls them up in front of the bench," says Bailey, "and if you went down and viewed the three courts, his [style] appears very unorthodox. Because he's actually taking testimony from the families for the first time. He's saying, 'Do you have a job? Do you work? What is your income? Can you supervise this kid? Is he smoking dope? Is he coming in late at night? Can you guarantee that he won't get in any more trouble?' "
Shelton does not have that testimony recorded by a court reporter, so it's hard to pin down exactly what goes into the decisions that the judge will make about disposition of the case. But Bailey does not seem concerned by that.
"The other courts are using a more traditional approach, having witnesses," he explains, "and swearing in folks, and doing all kinds of hocus-pocus stuff that just appears more traditional." By contrast, Bailey describes the frenetic scene in Shelton's court as "hulley gulley."
Swearing in, testimony, court transcripts -- they all are apparently outdated in the brave new world of turbo-charged justice Shelton-style. And in the rush to justice, politics has a way of seeping into the process.
The District Attorney's review of Shelton's court centers on allegations that his system of funneling cash-carrying families to particular attorneys may come at a price -- campaign contributions during election season.
In the last few years Shelton has consistently billed more to the county for court-appointed lawyers than his juvenile judge colleagues. In 1998, for example, Shelton spent $440,690 on court-appointed attorneys, while Craft billed $286,854. Ellis was in between, with $393,760.
Within Shelton's court, the lawyers appointed most frequently to cases by the judge also happen to be the attorneys who stand by him at election time with contributions. If those are voluntary contributions, then the setup is not an unusual occurrence in a courts system that allows judges to set up a sort of patronage network with their favorite lawyers.
A source knowledgeable about the cash appointments in Shelton's court says the attorneys most frequently involved have been Phillips, his law partner, Glenn Devlin, Evan Glick, Sid Berger, Brian Fischer, Oliver Sprott and Greg Cotton. On the child protective services side of the judge's docket, which constitutes about 60 percent of his cases, lawyer George Clevenger received the most appointments.
A review of Shelton's campaign reports from mid-1997 through late 1998 shows a predictable correlation between contributions and appointments. Cotton contributed a total of $3,500 to the judge, while Devlin kicked in $9,990, including an in-kind contribution of $4,990 for campaign signs. Phillips made a $5,000 contribution in mid-1998, while Glick gave $2,500 and Berger $2,000. Sprott contributed $10,000, while Clevenger came across with $6,300.
Some of these attorneys seemed to operate almost exclusively in Shelton's court during the same period. For instance, county auditor records for attorney activity from late 1997 through early this year had 515 entries for Clevenger in Shelton's court, as opposed to a total of 42 entries for the attorney in all other Harris County courts. Over the last year and a half, Clevenger was paid $95,742 by the county, with $86,432 coming via assignments in Shelton's court.
Devlin's court-appointed lawyer practice was even more dependent on the 313th. The auditor's office figures showed 456 entries for Devlin and a total payment of $42,008, with only three other entries totaling $250 for any other court.
And all of these amounts are the totals paid by the county for indigent representation. The county does not keep track of the money made through the cash payments from families linked up to their attorneys by Shelton.
Shelton maintains that any qualified lawyer can get appointments in his court and claims he appoints more different lawyers than either Craft or Ellis.
"I don't choose who shows up in court," says the judge. "Any attorney who has a license can practice in the court." According to Shelton, last year 124 different lawyers got appointments in his court. "It shows that the court is open. If somebody shows up in court and tells me they want to do a court appointment, we consider everybody. It is not a closed show."
That statement doesn't quite square with the experience of one attorney, who asked to remain unnamed. When the lawyer approached former Shelton court coordinator Kevin McGee and asked how one could get appointments in the court, the coordinator advised that a $1,000 campaign contribution to the judge would be helpful. A witness in Shelton's court recalls McGee distributing campaign materials in the court area during working hours and soliciting lawyers to participate in fund-raisers for the judge.
The judge replied to those allegations with trademark sarcasm. "You can make up, you can say any outrageous thing you want to," snapped Shelton. "Why not a million dollars? Let's make it really interesting. To me, that is just your typical innuendo kind of crap you hear that is not substantiated by anything. Ask Mr. McGee."
Shelton says McGee is now in Las Vegas. The judge had no phone number for him, and McGee could not be located for comment. But McGee did have some understanding of the judge's political needs. He received payments from the judge's campaign account in the spring of 1998 totaling $2,075 -- in the same period, he was paid over $3,000 per month as Shelton's court coordinator. This occurred after McGee had taken a leave of absence from the court in the fall of 1997 to go to Las Vegas to train as a blackjack dealer, certainly an offbeat job for a court coordinator.
"He's been gone for a couple of years," claimed Shelton when questioned about McGee's activities. "He went up there to see if he could get a job. Used his comp and vacation time, and when that was expired, he came back and didn't have his position. Then he stayed with us for another six to eight months and then got the position he wanted."
According to county auditor records, McGee was paid as Shelton's court coordinator through July of last year, so he was not gone the "couple of years" recounted by Shelton. During that three-month sojourn in Las Vegas in the fall of 1997, he used 232 hours of accumulated comp time as well as vacation time.
A participant in Shelton's 1997-98 campaign recalls that the judge and McGee often spent the night hours together putting out campaign signs, an effort at which the judge excelled.
"Shelton was a maniac about signs," says the source, laughing. "He had signs everywhere...." McGee and the judge would put up signs all night long "night after night after night," says this observer.
Political consultants queried by the Press could recall no parallel example of a Harris County judge using his court coordinator to double as a paid campaign worker. Asked about it, Shelton dismissed the issue as a red herring raised by political opponents.
"He did physical labor, putting up the 'Shelton' signs you see on the road," explained the judge, as if manual rather than cerebral political work is more acceptable by a county employee.
"What is wrong with that?" asked Shelton. "Is it illegal? No. I can employ anybody I want to to help in my campaign. Whether they work for me or whether they're somebody else, a friend, whatever."
Shelton didn't address the issue of the appearance of impropriety when a court employee involved in arranging appointments of lawyers is also on the judge's political payroll, and allegedly soliciting campaign contributions for the judge in his role as court coordinator. Instead, he blamed his next-door neighbor and nemesis, Judge Craft, for trying to poison his judicial well.
"I know that you got interested because of an attorney playing a race card in the court," the judge told this reporter. In a reference to Craft, Shelton added, "And then you get information from your next source, I guess your next-door source, saying, 'Look at these attorneys, or Kevin McGee,' or this that and the other."
It's clear that while the judge may relish the role of quizzing those who come before his bench, he clearly doesn't cotton to having the queries coming from the other direction.
"What other great questions do you have?" purred the judge. "I want to make sure I have given my input, that I at least have the opportunity out of fairness to address it. Because you've raised a dozen different little areas of inquiry."
Unfortunately, we didn't have a map in hand to ask him where he came from.
Shortly after the Houston Press began asking questions about Shelton's cash appointment practice, the effort was discontinued. But not, contends Shelton, because there was anything wrong with it. The judge says his concern was the uncertain flow of payments to the lawyers who took the appointments.
"You have to understand the reason the program was discontinued was the bad checks that were given to lawyers, and that people would not pay [again] if the case was reset," says Shelton. "In my opinion, I didn't have any way to enforce any kind of contract with any kind of civil contempt like I could on a reimbursement to the county, where I could use the county attorneys to enforce the payment."
Shelton insists he was giving poor families a legal bargain with lawyers for $150, but they just wouldn't keep their end of the deal.
"Nobody came through," he laments. "Nobody had any reason. So all these working-class people -- and again, that was the reason to do it -- they're poor. They make $20,000, but they got six kids at home and have no money in the bank."
The judge figures he had found a great way to deliver affordable legal services to the masses, but they just didn't appreciate it.
"We couldn't get people to follow through and even pay that [$150 an appearance]."
So what's next? According to the judge, he'll give poor families a little more time to find an attorney, and if they don't, he'll start the process up again, with some added teeth.
"We're giving people two months rather than one month to hire an attorney, which still puts me in line with the other two courts as to when the kids come to court," explains Shelton. "How successful that is, we will see."
But the lawyers in Shelton's court needn't worry. He's ready to enlist the County Attorney's Office to enforce payments if and when the fee appointments begin again.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to the mission of the Houston Press. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Houston’s stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
The judge says if families return to court a second time without an attorney, he can appoint one for them and order them to reimburse the county or face civil contempt action. "I don't really have that power now if somebody doesn't pay on a retained lawyer. That gives me the county attorneys to help bring in some of those dollars."
And with that, Pat Shelton will be running the best little judicially sanctioned juvenile law mill in town, complete with a county collection service.
"What this judge is doing is being a runner for private lawyers," counters UT professor Dawson, who lingers on the idea of cash being exchanged in a court hallway between poor families and an appointed lawyer.
"That's really the image of justice that we want to promote in this state, isn't it?" The professor scoffs. "That's just fucking outrageous.