Imagine if I have a critical hearing in a child custody case before a family judge who is a Democrat and on the front row of the courtroom sit some black preachers, union leaders and the president of an influential of Mexican-American Democratic Club. The special guests are well known to the judge as heavy weights in her political party and yet they do not testify. They talk to my client and to me before and after the hearing but they never say a word in the hearing. They just watch. Everyone in the courtroom knows who they are and how influential they will be when the judge runs for reelection. It is obvious they are on my side and friends with my client but their presence will not even be noted in the official record of the case. If that judge rules for my client, everyone is going to assume that the political spectators I brought to the hearing had something to do with her decision.
The judge in this scenario should be furious with me and my client because now the entire courthouse will think these political heavyweights were brought to court to influence the judge and that the tactic worked. The judge is placed in a very difficult position. She cannot order these people from the courtroom and yet she cannot pretend she does not see them or know who they are. Now imagine if my client fires me and hires lawyers who just happen to be former chairpersons of the Harris County Democratic Party, both of whom are very influential in who wins primaries. How does it appear to hire lawyers based on their political connections rather than their courtroom abilities? How obvious could it be to hire two former Democratic party chairs to present a case before a Democratic judge? My Republican friends would scream about the obvious political manipulation of the system and question the fairness of that court and its rulings.
Something like this happened in the 311th District Court as part of a child custody case where over $1 million has been spent on attorney's fees and now a new trial has been granted after a jury trial and the parties have to start all over again. The only real difference between my "what-if" tale and reality is the political party involved. This twisted tale has a well known cast of characters: Gary Polland, Jared Woodfill, Bobby Newman, Robert Hoffman, Judges John Schmude and Alicia Franklin-York, and Republican kingpin Dr. Steven Hotze. The case involves allegations of child abuse, dramatic changes in custody, and motions to disqualify judges. There have been open threats to punish a judge for his rulings by running a primary opponent against him and even supposedly political pressure to have an associate judge fired. The case involves wealthy members of Second Baptist Church outraged that children would be taken from their "good Christian" mother and given to a "Muslim" father. A judge has ruled in writing that it is error to keep lawyers from discussing parents' religious beliefs in a jury child custody case, as if, for non-Christians, the Constitution has been suspended.
I was alerted about this case by an angry Republican judge who had nothing personally to do with the case but who has a lot of concern about the integrity of our judicial system. As a result, I showed up as an intrepid journalist to watch a hearing in this case in the 311th District Court where Judge Alicia Franklin-York presides. Even though the courtroom was suspiciously completely empty that Friday morning, when my presence was noted by the court coordinator, the hearing was moved into the judge's chambers so I could not see what happened. The judge took six lawyers back to her office to conduct a 50 minute hearing when her courtroom was empty except for the mother in the case and her friend/financial benefactor and me.
The whole mess stinks of politics and should upset anyone who cares about the fairness of our family courts. Justice for children and their parents is not a partisan issue and custody cases should be decided by the facts and the law and not by political clout or fear of losing an election.
The mother lost a jury trial despite the efforts of her very good attorney, Robert Hoffman. Then, the mother hired two former Republican party chairs,
and Jared Woodfill, got the case moved to Alicia Franklin-York's court and brought to the critically important hearing Dr. Steven Hotze, the single most important endorser in local GOP politics. Miraculously, suddenly the mother won and the jury verdict awarding custody of the children to the father was tossed out.
This story of what appears to be political influence in Harris County courts is highly disturbing, but it is not actually as bad as I originally thought. I was prepared to criticize Judge Alicia Franklin-York for her big ruling so far in the case. But, after hours of reviewing pleadings and doing my own legal research, I reluctantly came to the conclusion that one basis for her startling decision to grant a new trial in this case is justifiable. Not matter how stinky the surrounding circumstances, I hesitate to criticize a judge about a particular ruling and I almost never do that in this newsletter. However, I had to evaluate the soundness of the judge's legal ruling to determine if political influence played a role in her decision. I believe most judges would not have overthrown the jury verdict in this case, but there was at least one reason given by Franklin-York for granting the new trial that some judges would have accepted. So, I will give Franklin-York the benefit of the doubt here, despite our troubled history. The judge's ruling that a parent's religious beliefs and national origin can be used against that parent in a child custody case is both wrong and very worrisome. Franklin-York's ruling on this point as a reason to grant a new trial ignores the Constitution and a century of appellate decisions in Texas and does make me wonder how much the presence of the arch-conservative and very religious Hotze that day in the courtroom influenced her ruling. I am sadly aware that such a ruling on religious freedom will actually be well received by many voters in a Republican primary.
Click here to read the full story I have written about this case, which is too long for a single e-mail.
While my opinion does not count for much, I think this case should be heard by a good, retired judge who does not need to worry about reelection or endorsements. If Judge Schmude can recuse himself because he cares about the appearance of fairness, so can Franklin-York (without admitting at all that she has done anything wrong). The parents in this case deserve at the end of the day to know a fair, impartial judge heard their case and that politics played no role in the judge's rulings.
I have previously made a criminal complaint (by writing the District Attorney) against Judge Franklin for work she did before becoming a judge, when as a lawyer on CPS cases, she billed the county 32.25 hours in one day (she apparently learned the art of billing in CPS cases from none other than Gary Polland, who also billed the county more than 24 hours in a single day). Nothing came of my complaints against Polland or Franklin under the administration of Republican District Attorney Devon Anderson.
to read one of my 2014 stories about the CPS billing by Alicia Franklin when she was a lawyer that was part of a scandal involving politically connected lawyers and what they billed the county for court appointments.
to read one of several stories about how Gary Polland got rich off CPS appointments from Republican judges and somehow billed more than is humanly possible for one person in one day.
The CPS billing scandal I uncovered in 2014 lead to the Legislature in 2015 completely changing how attorneys are appointed by judges in cases where they are paid by the county. This little newsletter has made a difference on a few occasions in the past.
Alicia Franklin was appointed to be the judge of the 311th District Court only because Judge Denise Pratt resigned instead of facing criminal charges because of my investigation published in this newsletter. I finally found eyewitnesses to backdating of court documents and got them to the D.A. and that is why Pratt resigned and Franklin was then appointed. Several other lawyers bravely took on Pratt as well, but the publicity and evidence generated by this newsletter had a lot to do with Pratt resigning.
I am very proud of the many excellent REPUBLICAN family judges we have in Harris County,
but I am willing to stand up against the rotten few who give all of us a bad name, even though I make my living as an attorney in those very courts.
For obvious reasons, I did not represent clients for a while in the 311th once Alicia Franklin became judge. She was married to Doug York after she became judge. This year I began to work before Judge Franklin-York (after making full disclosure to my clients). In court, Judge Franklin-York was totally professional and fair with me. As I watched her handle other cases, I was impressed by how efficient, courteous, concerned, reasonable and fair Judge Franklin-York was. I was planning to write something really complimentary about Judge Franklin-York and then I heard about this shocking case. Now, I presume I am back out of the 311th for a few more years.
This is a long, complicated story, so you need to click the link below to read the entire expose.
However, as an added bonus, I am providing the following photo of these influential Republicans, Dr. Hotze and Edd Hendee (who play major roles in the unfortunate tale I am sharing with you). I suggest that you print this photo out in color, fold it over and then place this powerful talisman on the counsel table in certain courts. It is said by a few cynics that the mere presence of these two men staring at the judge greatly increases the chances of courtroom success. I prefer to believe judges are honest. I also believe in science and not supposition, so please report back to me whether this works and I will analyze the data to determine if big shot Republicans in the courtroom really do effect the outcome of hearings or trials. Of course, to be scientific, I will need to control for variables, such as the presence of former party chairs as counsel and the religious beliefs of the parties. I plan to write more about this case, so stay tuned for the results of my research.
Please note that both Mr. Hendee and Dr. Hotze are friends of the family of the mother in this case I am writing about and Mr. Hendee has provided over $435,000 to bankroll the mother's legal team. There could be totally benign reasons why Hotze and Hendee sat on the front row in the courtroom when Judge Franklin-York had to decide whether to throw out a jury verdict for the father and grant a new trial. Keeping track of one's investments or showing support for a family friend's daughter in court are often what brings busy, political heavy weights to court to just watch and stare at the judge. I am sure Jared Woodfill and Gary Polland begged Hotze and Hendee not to be in court that day because of how unseemly and improper it would appear. I assume Jared and Gary told Hotze and Hendee that their presence would not sway the judge one tiny bit. I did e-mail Mr. Hendee to get his side of this story, but so far he has not replied to my request. I am 100% sure that Judge Alicia Franklin-York will say that her ruling had absolutely nothing to do with the presence of all these important Republicans in her court all on the side of the mother who happened to win big that day in her court.
Click here to read the full story
If you care about the fairness of our justice system, I recommend that you not read this story right after eating. This tale will nauseate you.
Again, I invite those involved with this case to send me their side of the story and I will publish verbatim what they send me. Jared Woodfill, who remains friendly to me despite our differences of opinion on almost every social issue facing mankind, had this to say in reply to my inquiries:
I represent regular folks who need help in their time of need. I am proud of the clients I have the honor to represent; a group that includes people with different work backgrounds and life experiences, including teachers, engineers, doctors, small business owners and many more. It is an insult to our good judges to suggest that any of them rule based on political considerations. If anything, many judges bend over backwards to avoid the appearance of any favoritism, even to lawyers with strong political beliefs like me.