Saturday, September 17, 2011

Courthouse war out of control, over the top

Williamson County's growing pains rankle officials, in and out of federal, state courts

Reporting by Lou Ann Anderson
Story by The Legendary Jim Parks

Georgetown – Along with an explosive growth rate of 63% compared to neighboring Austin's 61%, Williamson County's growing pains have led to a series of disastrous official feuds sparked by cultural warfare.

County officials could be spending their time confronting a dwindling tax rate, explosive growth's complications on an overcrowded and congested transportation system, and the means to budget government services to a burgeoning population.

But that is not the case.

The conflict flares up any time the good old boy system abuts the more demure and professional demeanor of female prosecutors and court employees.

The resulting gender political psy-war is both costly to taxpayers and ethically quLinkestionable, played out in the venue of county, state and federal courtrooms.

The alleged outrageously ill behavior of a Court-At-Law Judge toward a secretary and Court Reporter and his ongoing fuss with the female County Attorney have landed he and his attorney, a buddy from the Marine Corps, in federal court amid a flurry of lawsuits, cross claims and countercharges that challenge the county government, the Commissioners' Court and the County Judge.

Like most feuds, no one really remembers how this all started, but here are some hints.

Court at Law No. 3 Judge Don Higginbotham strolled into a courtroom where he found Court Reporter Kimberly Lee chatting with another employee and blithely told her to “Fu**ing shut up.”

He subsequently told a bystander if she and her fellow employee Sharon McGuyer that he had not given either one of them a ride in his new car because they would break the springs due to their extreme weight.

They are both white women, according to a federal civil rights lawsuit filed against Williamson County in their behalf. The chief allegation of complaint is sexual harassment and adverse employment actions, for which they seek compensatory and punitive damages, back pay and reasonable attorneys' fees.

The suit alleges a series of 12 incidents involving ill behavior and crude language used by the now-retired judge, one of which involved his asking if they would hold his penis for him while he used the bathroom. The weight of the thing was much too much, the judge allegedly remarked, and it caused a tremendous strain on his back.

As female employees, the two plaintiffs had a reason to believe that their male superior, an elected official, had a tremendous amount of influence over their status as employees.

It looks as if they were right. Their suit alleges numerous ill effects of the ongoing feud between themselves and the judge, as well as other employees, some of whom phoned them to berate them for their behavior toward the judge. When the lawsuit was settled for $350,000, the lawyers took a large share of the money damages awarded the plaintiffs.

So, the taxpayers lined the pockets of the trial lawyers and the loss of productivity has not been calculated, nor will it like ever be.

When County Judge Dan Gattis and the Commissioners' Court appointed a former Assistant District Attorney Mike Davis, an individual who is the judge's old buddy from the Marine Corps, as his counsel, County Attorney Jana Duty went into high gear. She filed a lawsuit against Judge Gattis because on five separate occasions, he and the Commissioners' Court have appointed outside counsel to represent county officials instead of using the services of her office.

Mr. Davis has a history of alleged legal misconduct that goes back to the decades-old trial of convicted murderer Michael Morton. Jurors who had just returned a verdict of guilty against the defendant say then-prosecutor Davis visited them in the jury room. There, he bragged that he and his colleagues in the DA's office had withheld exculpatory evidence. Many years later, that evidence has turned up as a result of legall maneuvering by Barry Scheck of the New York-based Innocence Project, which is battling to get Mr. Morton a new trial.

That lawsuit was summarily dismissed in state district court after Judge Gattis' re-election due to a little-known “forgiveness doctrine” entombed in the murky depths of Texas jurisprudence.

The holding is that following election or re-election to a public office, an official may be forgiven for past transgressions and lawsuits complaining thereof may be dismissed by courts.


Then there's the pending flurry of State Bar and State Commission on Judicial Conduct complaints filed on Ms. Duty and the judges.

Should the hearings be public or private, the resulting reprimands or notes in the personnel files available as public record, or shielded?

Such complications almost never come up in the cases of defendants for DWI or other costly misdemeanors. That's all available for public scrutiny.

So far, the cost to taxpayers has mounted into the range of six figures in legal fees.

Many taxpayers and social media correspondents are agitating for open court hearings and an open record on the resulting actions taken by the State Bar and Commission on Judicial Conduct, if any.

Former Assistant Williamson County Attorney Hal Hawes has filed for election to Ms. Duty's post. He is also a former legal adviser to the Commissioners' Court, the retainer for which was an element of the allegations of complaint in her lawsuit against the County Judge and the court.

Here is a blow-by-blow series of stories about the dust-ups, foibles and feuds as they have developed over the months.

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