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Houston Judge Under Criminal Investigation—Lawyers in San Antonio on the Lookout for Local Misdoings

Chosen by voters in the last election, Judge Denise Pratt has been serving in the courtroom as a family court judge over hundreds of cases since 2010. Now, partway through her bid for re-election in 2014, Pratt is dropping out of the race amidst a flurry of criticism and calling for justice, according to this Houston Associated Press article published on My San Antonio Online. With the media attention and scrutiny coming from different corners of Harris County including prosecutors, public defenders, other judges and families served in Pratt’s courtroom lawyers in San Antonio, Austin, Dallas and other large metro areas are scrutinizing their own elected judicial members for potential screw ups.

Well, “screw up” is a harsh word, isn’t it? But whether it is aptly applied to Pratt’s doings in public office, service and the courtroom is somewhat a matter of opinion. Going over just how bad it is, the Houston Chronicle reports that Pratt is accused of breaking the law by dismissing more than 630 cases in the last two days of the 2013 work-year without notifying any parties involved in those cases. The fallout could be considered merely an administrative backlog when considering the volume of Harris County Court cases, but to the families and attorneys involved in those 630, the results were virtually legally catastrophic. Lawyers in San Antonio like S. Lee Stevenson venture that Pratt’s actions would have annulled a wide selection of child custody and child support cases, creating intense confusion and anxiety, not to mention additional legal costs, for families.

But that’s not all. Early in March of 2014, Pratt was removed from five cases in a single day by a visiting senior judge who was appalled to learn that she made a final ruling in a child custody case without having heard any testimony or evidence. The attention of the visiting judge was hailed by this case’s opposing attorneys who informed the senior judge that they had been recently interviewed about it as part of the ongoing criminal investigation into Pratt’s work.

Stevenson, like other lawyers in San Antonio or similar Texas metro areas, could comment that concluding cases in this way is highly unethical—and sparks healthy skepticism for examining practices of other Texas Judges. Nearly half of all the states use the electoral process to seat judges, and Texas is one of them. Despite the controversy, Pratt was still leading the way in the March 4 Republican primary before she withdrew, so electoral democracy can’t be seen as an insulator to unethical or criminal judicial practices.

Caving to the pressure from the media and members of the Harris County court system—including lawyers and fellow judges—Pratt withdrew officially from the 2014 race, citing the need to protect her family’s reputation and well-being from “relentless attacks by my political opponents,” but not before blaming her lead clerk for the 630 case dismissal snafu. (He resigned.) Lawyers in San Antonio are all too familiar with political and public service figures breaking the law, but hopefully Pratt’s unethical practices won’t rub off on anyone nearby.

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