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.

Bell doesn't look or sound ready to leave her $75,000-a-year job anytime soon.

Business cards in a plastic holder on her desk feature her trademark slogan, "The Bell That Rings for Justice."

It's clear that Bell feels an injustice was done to her on the bar poll. She's the only black female judge in the entire county court system. But she says racism or sexism didn't necessarily play a large role in her ranking.

"It's retaliation," Bell bristles.
The poll results, she adds, are "rigged."
Bell says she's the victim of a vendetta pursued by lawyers Gary Block, David Smith, Jack Lee and County Court-at-Law Judge James Anderson. She claims they persuaded colleagues to vote against her in the bar poll because they were unhappy with a 1993 case in her court that involved a Stafford businessman whom Bell cited for contempt after he accused her of taking a leisurely lunch while a packed courtroom waited.

Lawyers aren't Betty Brock Bell's favorite people in the people's court. She likes to grumble about how the majority of them don't want to wait their turn and always want to have their cases heard first. She admits she has an attitude.

In the bar poll -- in which bar association members were asked to rate judges in six categories (Follows the law? Works hard?), 78 percent of the lawyers evaluating Bell checked off "poor" when it came to "Uses attorney's time efficiently?"

"I will always be ranked low there," says Bell, "because I think everyone's time is valuable, whether they are making $1.25 an hour or $125 an hour. The lawyers swarm in here and want to go first. This is the people's court."

The bar association began polling its members about judges in 1973. The evaluation poll and the Judicial Preference Poll the association conducts before elections have become influential in forming the public's perceptions of jurists. Otherwise, most non-lawyers have little information to go on when deciding among the hundreds of candidates who seek election to state and county judicial posts every two years.

Bell, of course, is not the first person to question the fairness of the evaluation poll. For years, the larger downtown law firms have been accused of controlling the poll through bloc voting by their lawyers.

Justices of the peace have been rated in the poll only since 1991. That may be because the 16 JPs -- there are two elected from each of eight JP precincts in Harris County -- are set up precisely so citizens don't need lawyers. More than a half-million citizens pour through the courts each year, brought there by hot check warrants, eviction notices and speeding violations -- the kind of small-potatoes cases that few lawyers find are worth their time and trouble. Justices of the peace don't have to be lawyers. Betty Brock Bell isn't.

The episode that Bell says led to her reproach by the legal profession occurred in November 1993.

The judge was walking back to her courtroom after a noon recess when Bruce Caress, a carpet store owner, approached her in the hallway and told her it was a disgrace that she was late returning from lunch and had kept a courtroom full of people waiting. Bell now says she hadn't been out to lunch but had been discussing court matters with attorneys. Whatever the case, Caress' comments provoked Bell to the point that she cited him for contempt of court -- in the hallway -- and ordered him handcuffed, arrested and hauled off to the county jail.

"I love my job," says Bell, "buy I'm not going to let anyone disrespect me."
Caress sat in the tank for a few hours until his attorney managed to get him released. After some more legal haggling, the matter seemed to be over.

But several months later Bell issued a warrant for Caress' arrest to serve a three-day jail sentence. At a subsequent hearing, Caress' attorneys, including Gary Block, pointed out to County Court-at-Law Judge James Anderson that courtroom business is conducted in the courtroom, not the hallways. Bell, they argued, had violated their client's civil rights. Anderson quashed the arrest warrant and dismissed the contempt charge.

The State Commission on Judicial Conduct eventually issued a public admonition of Bell, saying she acted improperly when she signed a contempt order stating that Caress had criticized her in open court.

Public admonitions by the state commission are rare -- normally, about five a year are issued for the entire state. More rare is an appeal of a commission decision. Bell, however, refused to concede. She appealed the decision. In February, a special panel appointed by the Texas Supreme Court upheld the admonition.

Gary Block can't believe Bell is still talking about her run-in with Bruce Caress. It's even more ridiculous, he says, that Bell is accusing him and others involved in the case of rigging the bar poll.

"If anyone refuses to let things pass or has a vendetta it's Bell," Block says. "Once the ruling came down, Betty Brock Bell was completely insignificant to our lives."

Judge James Anderson is equally incredulous about Bell's claim that he somehow helped in rigging the bar poll against her.

"That's a misguided bunch of crap," Anderson says. "Did she really say that? I can't believe it."

Of the two other lawyers involved in the Caress case, one, David Smith, declined comment, and the other, Jack Lee, didn't return calls from the Press.

Several of Bell's colleagues on JP benches say, however, that Bell's basement showing in the bar poll was a direct result of the Caress episode -- not because the poll was "rigged," but simply because lawyers like to trade stories and have memories like elephants. And the Caress case -- unlike almost everything else that goes on in the JP courts -- received extensive media coverage.

The numbers seem to bear out that explanation. In 1993, before word of Block's hallway encounter with Caress spread, Bell was given an overall rating of "poor" by about 40 percent of the attorneys who registered their opinions of her. Two years later that percentage had doubled.

"It was a pretty hot little subject," recalls Justice of the Peace George Risner. "My guess is it caused her to slip in the polls."

Risner, however, says he's observed Bell and found "she runs a pretty good court."

Another justice of the peace notes that when only a handful of attorneys practice in a particular court, a judge who gets "seven angry at her" could wind up with a high percentage of poor marks in the bar poll.

Officials of the bar association say Bell's charges about the poll are impossible to prove. But her accusations do raise some questions about the poll's validity.

Ballot forms for the poll (which are mailed to all 9,166 members of the bar association) ask participating lawyers to rank jurists "based only upon ... personal firsthand knowledge" of the judges. Ninety-nine attorneys rated Bell -- a number she claims is outrageously high, given that only about 15 to 20 lawyers regularly pass through her court in a year.

"I would give three paychecks to find the 99 attorneys who have actually been in my court since I've been in office," Bell says.

Curiously, records from the county auditor's office show that H.N. McElroy heard the most cases of the 16 justices of the peace -- more than 128,000 in the county's 1994-95 budget year. But 108 attorneys on the bar poll rated McElroy, roughly the same number that rated Bell, who heard just 8,268 cases in the same time period.

The president of the Houston Bar Association, Charles Gregg, suggests there might be a good explanation for Bell's ratings, and he sounds somewhat miffed when he thinks a reporter hasn't thought of the obvious.

"Have you considered she might be a bad judge?" he says.
Gregg admits he has no firsthand knowledge of Bell's court, but he offers that a judge in Dallas has a similar bad rating in the bar poll there. He acknowledges, however, that there isn't any way to insure lawyers voting in the poll have "personal firsthand knowledge" of the 158 judges being voted on.

"We don't know how to even check on the suspicion some lawyers are calling friends and violating their oath."

Standing outside Bell's court on a recent afternoon, the youngish lawyer in the baggy tan suit offered his own evaluation of the judge.

"If someone calls me up and says I have a case in her court, I charge five times as much," he said, only half jokingly.

The attorney also echoed the claims of other lawyers interviewed for this story, who said Bell doesn't understand the rules of evidence.

About half of the 16 justices of the peace are not lawyers. While it has been suggested that lawyers have a bias against non-lawyer jurists, the highest rated justice of the peace in the bar poll was Bill Yeoman, who's not a lawyer.

But it seems to be Bell's attitude, not her lack of a law degree, that annoys lawyers the most.

"They know they don't intimidate me," Bell says proudly.
Several lawyers who do practice regularly in Bell's court complain that her staff is uncooperative and inefficient. Two of them claim paperwork has been lost and warrants then mistakenly issued for a client's arrest. Business takes three times as long in Bell's court because every step has to be checked three times, says one attorney. He charges clients more to argue a case before Bell because, he says, it requires more time and effort.

A third attorney who specializes in hot check charges says he won't take cases in Bell's court anymore because they ate up too much of his day. "My time is worth more," he says. When potential clients call him with a case in her court, he simply offers free advice over the phone.

But if lawyers gripe about Bell, many of the people streaming out of her courtroom on a recent day say she's fair and understanding. Most of them were involved in landlord-tenant disputes and pleaded their cases without lawyers. As one of them put it, who knows or cares if the judge follows rules of evidence?

"She's sensitive to the needs of the tenants and tries to be fair. People are losing their jobs and she has to play the role of Solomon. When she has to evict families she does as sensitive a job as possible," says David Rubenstein, a landlord who counts himself as a regular in Bell's court. Rubenstein's tenant -- who has just been evicted -- stands nearby. She nods her head in agreement.

Such sentiment probably will have a greater bearing on Betty Brock Bell's future than what lawyers say about her. But the bar poll may have emboldened one would-be challenger. Last week Beverley Clark, who's been in the bail bonding business since losing a run for Congress, called the Press to confirm that she is indeed running for Bell's seat.

The same day that Clark apprised the Press of her plans, Betty Brock Bell called with a question: "Is Bruce Caress behind this story?

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Bonnie Gangelhoff