Law and Disorder

For a moment, Judge E. Janice Law seems baffled during the morning docket call. She has just read out a defendant's name, but he hasn't stepped forward.

Instead, the man with the balding head continues to sit in the jury box, staring at her.

"Oh, Mr. Slaughter, you may come up now." The frail woman in the black robe speaks in a pleasant, high-pitched voice. "Come up, please."

But Slaughter isn't going anywhere, not unless he takes his five fellow jail inmates along with him. The man in the orange jumpsuit looks back blandly at Judge Law. He raises his right wrist to display the dangling silver chain linking him to his associates.

"Oh, you are shackled! I didn't realize you were shackled," Law half apologizes, half laughs without malice. "Can you hear us all right from there?"

Slaughter rolls his eyes skyward. An attorney, standing near the judge, whispers something -- perhaps about a defendant's right to participate in his own proceedings.

Law nods. "Bailiff, will you unshackle the defendant?"

In a few minutes the defendant is headed back to jail, while Law returns to her ritual on this May day in County Criminal Court No. 5. Attorneys nervously glance at the judge and their watches as they mill about in a loose line waiting for her attention.

A defendant named Wimbley approaches the bench, straining to hear the soft tones of the judge's words. When he speaks, she cuts him off quickly. "Please!" she says, her nose wrinkling in disgust. "Please don't lean way, way into my face."

Law recoils, waving her left hand vigorously in front of her to, well, clear the air. But her uncovered left hand shows just how far she has come in her months as a county judge.

She may still be no populist, but -- unlike in her early days as a municipal court judge -- Law has left her surgical gloves at home, the ones she wore each day when she first took the bench. When mystified municipal aides inquired about the strange attire, she reportedly told them it was a safeguard, since she had to sign the same papers defendants handled. After all, you could never tell what those people might have come in contact with.

"I was astounded," says one attorney, who regularly appears in municipal court. "With those gloves, I couldn't tell if that was a proctologist or a butcher up there. But her explanation told it all -- you could imagine how she really felt about the people who had to come before her."

Sure, in eight months on the bench, a bare-handed Law has caught some criticism for her miscues in court. There was that panel of 32 potential jurors she left standing in the hallway for more than three hours. And the jurors who took the marijuana stash into the deliberating room for unsupervised evidence inspection.

But the concerns about this jurist run far deeper, into basic questions of whether she follows the law.

Frontline prosecutors and defense attorneys join in decrying her rulings and attitude about the administration of justice. The grace period for new judges has come and gone, and Law, they say, clings more stubbornly than ever to her strange notions.

A few of her fellow judges even stepped in with an intervention of sorts, trying to counsel Law on court procedures. Law cut that meeting short, reportedly saying they were ganging up on her. She walked out. Now some of her political backers have bailed out on her.

It doesn't bode well for the judge who is described by a peer as Exhibit A in the movement to reform the judicial selection process.

"It is generally accepted, by defense attorneys and prosecutors who have worked in her court, that she doesn't really understand her job," says veteran defense lawyer Terry Gaiser.

Kent Schaffer, president of the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, has not been in her court but has "heard the horror stories."

"Apparently she has her own way of doing things, without regard to tradition, practice -- or even the law," Schaffer says.

The gloves, it seems, have come off in this bare-knuckled contest of wills.

Elizabeth Gail Huff had been a campaign volunteer for Law and was one of her defenders. Until the day of June 4, when Huff was appointed by the judge to represent indigents at the docket call.

One of those in court was Marietta Elaine Barnes, 33, a nurse's aide who was charged with misdemeanor assault. Huff conferred with the woman and came away convinced that she had a valid defense.

Barnes gave her account of what started as a skating rink outing for her daughter on March 13. The nine-year-old accidentally bumped into a boy. An adult with that child chided him for not retaliating, so he collided with the girl. Barnes exchanged words with the woman, who spilled a soft drink on her. Then came the donnybrook between the two adults. Barnes, her child and a friend fled in a car as the other group banged on the windows.

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George Flynn
Contact: George Flynn