Saturday, March 31, 2012

'Someone has to talk to Felipe. He's not a good Republican'

Cultural clash brews long running feud
Lorena – Los Altos de Jalisco is a family restaurant located in a strip mall overlooking the clogged traffic lanes of I-35. On weekend mornings, it is packed wall to wall with tables overflowing with parents, kids, cousins, aunts and uncles, all enjoying a breakfast of leisure over a lingering cup of coffee.

Judge Steve Smith of the 361st District Court at Bryan labors over a notepad, calculating just how many yard signs he needs in each community of McLennan County, chatting up long-time family friends and consulting with an old hand at local politics, former Associate Justice Felipe Reyna of the 10th District Court of Appeals.

Laboring with laser-like focus over a calculator and his lists, he goes through a bowl of the Jalisco's house brand of ultra-hot picante and a basket of chips while the table of 10 supporters waits for the chow to go down and the talk of hotly contested GOP primary races swirls around his head. The waitress brings more salsa, more chips, and after breakfast is finished and the lists of community activists headed out to post signs in neighborhoods throughout the county further refined, he comes to the point.

After 17 years as a trial judge, it's a characteristic well-honed by experience riding herd on windy barristers, rambling witnesses, and indecisive jurors, some of whom are very aware of the clock, and others who are paying no attention to the sands of time winging away his day on the bench.

You might say it's a jurist's stock in trade, this matter of coming to the point.

On this Saturday morning, the point is that though his opponent's public admonishment by the Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct isn't the only issue to be settled in this primary race for Chief Justice of the 10th Court at Waco, “It extends to everything else...”

Speaking of Chief Justice Tom Gray, he adds, “He tends to let his personal opinions find their way into his opinions. For me, it's a matter of judicial integrity.”

That's an item of interest to a former Chair of the Judicial Section of the State Bar of Texas and serving faculty member of the Texas Center for the Judiciary.

It was Justice Gray's “vitriolic language,” so described by Commissioners, in dissenting judicial opinions which “contained unprofessional personal attacks” against his two colleagues, Associate Justices Bill Vance and Felipe Reyna, that started the feud, but it didn't end there.

First came the unfortunate incident of the March, 2007, keynote speech at the Republican Club of Somervel County in Glen Rose. The rural resort community on the Brazos is one of 18 counties in the jurisdiction of the 10th Court.

After Justice Reyna introduced him to the approximately 60 party faithful there assembled as “my good friend,” Justice Gray countered his remark.

“Really, we are not friends. He's never been in my home. I've never been in his home. And furthermore, every time there's a close vote on the Court, he always votes with Bill Vance.”

It was an awkward moment, to say the least, one made more impolitic by the fact that Justice Reyna's career started as a probation officer, morphed into the grind of a courthouse janitor by night and a Baylor Law student by day, included a stint as the District Attorney of McLennan County – a post in which his son Abel is setting records with aggressive prosecution – and ended in the bloodbath of 2010's let's-vote-the-rascals-out neocon zealotry.

Party stalwarts were shocked. “Later that evening, several attendees spoke to Justice Reyna, expressing displeasure with and apologizing for Justice Gray's comments,” the Commission's decision noted in an itemized “Findings of Fact.”

The remark is further explained in these laconic words.

“Both Justice Reyna and Justice Gray are Republicans; Justice Bill Vance is a Democrat.”

According to the Public Admonition, “Justice Gray attended Republican lunches and dinners and told party leaders, 'somebody needs to talk to Felipe. He's not being a good Republican,' and that Justice Reyna 'always votes with a liberal Democrat, (Justice) Bill Vance,' or words to that effect.”

There you have it. In spite of lofty judicial canons, the fine points of legal ethics, and the exacting extremes of the rule of law, it's still a very political process, this business of placing talented legal minds on the benches of Texas.

Indeed, Governor Rick Perry appointed Tom Gray, whose original training and career was in accountancy before he was admitted to the bar and practiced in the law firm of Leon Jaworski, to the Court to fill two years of another member's 6-year term. Then he ran in an election to finish the term before winning re-election as Chief Justice.

But the sensibilities of the campaign trail are not really all that suitable for what is considered conventional and proper conduct on the bench.

The Commission condemned Justice Gray's conduct by saying it “constituted willful and/or persistent violations...of the Texas Code of Judicial Conduct.”

But that wasn't all of it.

Security tapes caught Tom Gray entering Justice Vance's office without permission. The fact that it's a place of work and the Chief Justice was armed with a master key didn't excuse his actions, which he explained in his appearance at a hearing as a quest for a missing legal file.

“Justice Gray acknowledged, however, that after determining that the file was not in Justice Vance's office, he reviewed other papers located on Justice Vance's desk.” He also admitted unlocking and perusing both the offices of Justice Reyna and Justice Vance at other times without their permission.

That still seems to baffle Judge Felipe Reyna. “We all had master keys that fit every door up there!”

Then there were the “outbursts,” the comments to the Chief Clerk of the Court that things would be different when Justice Vance retired, the “sarcastic” remarks to counselors and staff, some of which left them “in tears.”

The Commission's conclusion was that “Justice Gray allowed his acrimonious relationship with Justices Vance and Reyna to improperly influence his conduct and judgment, and in the process, failed to treat those with whom he interacted in an official capacity, including court personnel, in a patient, dignified and courteous manner.”

Though the opinion wasn't as damning as those handed down that year regarding the Amarillo judge who “slapped the buttocks” of a court employee at a Christmas party, or the Dallas judge who just refused altogether to answer the complaints against him or even attend the hearings of the Commission, it was one previously remarked by editorial writers, in news articles, the cocktail hour political chat of lawyers, and talk radio pundits – a most unseemly bit of unwanted exposure for a very powerful court in the Texas judicial system, where the bulk of appeals never reach the two highest state appeals venues, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and the Texas Supreme Court.

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