The Worst Judge in Harris County?

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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.

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Bonnie Gangelhoff