Update: Harris County District Clerk's Office spokesman Bill Murphy tells us via email that the office "cannot verify whether notices of upcoming dismissal hearings were sent because the DCO is not responsible for sending out the notices. This duty falls on court coordinators. Each court has a court coordinator. Technically, they work for the county Office of Court Administration (and they do not work for the District Clerk's Office). But coordinators are hand-picked by the judges for whom they work." Moreover, Murphy also writes that District Clerks' "managers and supervisors who oversee the family courts have not been told by Judge Pratt personally, or by the clerks working in her court, that she was reporting problems with the eFileTexas.gov system. The new eFileTexas.gov system, an electronic system run by a state contractor, has nothing to do with the mailing of notices of upcoming dismissal hearings via the U.S. Postal Service." (This makes Yates's allegation even more suspect: If there really was a glitch in the system -- a system managed by Pratt's personal staff -- then why wouldn't anyone from Pratt's court notify any District Clerk staff? And if it's a system-wide problem, why aren't any other judges reporting similar complaints? Very odd.)
Embattled Harris County Family Court Judge Denise Pratt dismissed at least 260 -- and perhaps hundreds more -- pending cases December 30, 2013, in what one lawyer is calling "a triple whammy of judicial insanity."
Attorney Greg Enos, whose efforts to remove the Republican Pratt from the bench resulted in an investigation into the judge's alleged backdating of court orders -- a grand jury no-billed her last December -- tells Hair Balls the wholesale dismissal of hundreds of cases without notification violates the state rules of civil procedure. (Technically, the legal term for this is "batshit crazy.")
"She dismissed, as best we can tell, about 660 cases. She dismissed them without giving anyone any notice or any deadline...most of those cases were already set for trial," Enos says. "One lawyer had a case set for trial this Monday. Hadn't missed any deadlines, but out of the blue, they get [an] email notice from the District Clerk saying on December 30, Judge Pratt dismissed [the] case."
Although the cases are listed as "dismissed for want of prosecution" on the Clerk's website, Enos says he and other attorneys haven't been able to find actual copies of dismissal orders signed by Pratt.
Pratt's attorney, Terry Yates, blames the dismissals on a glitch in the District Clerk's new software.
"Apparently some of the attorneys weren't properly notified," he says. But he adds that Pratt "is reinstating any cases [in which] the attorney comes in and says they weren't notified."
Enos says he's convinced this was not a glitch in the system.
"Here's the real problem with this," Enos tells us. "Family courts usually have some sort of interim temporary orders. So for example, we have a case where they'd already been divorced, and [in] this new modification thing, the mother had done such bad things that Judge Pratt switched custody to Dad and said that Mom can't see the child at all....If the dismissal isn't changed, her temporary order goes away, and automatically goes back with the parent that she was so worried about. And that is probably true in over half of those cases, where this judge who claims to be protecting children is just throwing them back in the dirt....if this ain't a sign of legal mental illness, I don't know what is."
Enos says that the parties in these suits will have to pay to refile their cases and restart the process of waiting for a court date.
Pratt's court coordinator was not immediately available for comment. But Pratt's political campaign consultant, Allen Blakemore, who says he was unaware of his client suddenly torpedoing a ton of cases, was totally available to tell us how freakin' incompetent we were.
"I'm not a lawyer, I don't play one on television and I don't have any idea...what she has done in terms of her cases," he tells us. "I work on the politics; I don't work at the courthouse."
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
After we explained that lawyers were still trying to determine the total number of cases, he again pointed out our shortcomings.
"Between 260 and 660?...That's a range that doesn't really make any sense....maybe like you're not really sure what you're talking about, but that's just me," he says. But he offered to check into it for us, which softened the blow, and helped dry our tears. (Strangely, Blakemore issued a statement to the Chron following Pratt's earlier allegations, so we're a little unclear why he couldn't tell us anything about this latest business. Is it us? Is it something we did? Are we too fat?)
"How crazy is it that a judge who's up for election with four opponents, who's gotten all this bad publicity, would do something this wacko right now? What the hell is she thinking?" Enos asks.
Enos tells us that 37 of the 38 attorneys who signed an open letter last November calling for Pratt's resignation had cases dismissed, but lawyers who didn't sign have also been affected.