The Worst Judge in Harris County?

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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.

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Bonnie Gangelhoff