May 21, 2005
Judging the judges

The Houston Bar Association has published its annual poll (PDF) in which judges' performances are rated by HBA members. From the press release:

Every two years, the HBA asks its members to evaluate all members of the judiciary that serve in Harris County, as well as the Supreme Court of Texas and the Court of Criminal Appeals. The judges are evaluated in categories that include knowledge of the law, impartiality, efficiency, courtesy, written opinions, appropriate use of visiting judges, and an overall rating.

Each person evaluating a judge is asked to base his or her opinions on firsthand knowledge only. The Judicial Evaluation Poll is not an endorsement by the HBA of any judge.

There were 1,223 polls returned, representing 11 percent of the HBA's membership at the time of mailing.

The Judicial Evaluation Poll includes federal judges; magistrate judges; state and local appellate judges; civil, criminal, family, juvenile and probate judges; associate judges in the family and juvenile courts; IV-D masters; civil and criminal county court-at-law judges; municipal judges; justices of the peace; and visiting judges that sit frequently in Harris County courts.

The Chron story focuses on the Harris County judges who did best and worst. I'll get to some of that in a minute, but I think they missed the real story. That was in the poll results on State Supreme Court justices, three of whom received more "Poor" responses than "Outstanding". They were, in descending order, Nathan L. Hecht (40.3% Outstanding, 42.3% Poor), Scott A. Brister (36.9% Outstanding, 42.4% Poor), and finishing last as the Worst Supreme Court Justice in Texas as ranked by the HBA, Priscilla R. Owen, with 39.5% Outstanding and 45.3% Poor. I mean, with all due respect to Brock Thomas and Lee Rosenthal, we know who's been in the news lately, right?

Anyway. Other Badly Rated Judges of interest:

- The worst judge on the Court of Criminal Appeals was Cheryl Johnson, at 26.9/53.8. Cathy Cochran was best by a landslide, at 75.0/13.0. I feel compelled to note that Sharon Keller, my personal choice for worst judge in Texas, scored the next best on this poll, with 51.3/36.8; she was the only other majority-Outstanding judge.

- The worst judge on the Houston Court of Appeals was former Police Chief Sam Nuchia (19.5/53.9), with Sherry "wife of Steve" Radack the runner-up (33.6/41.4).

- Running last among US District Court judges was Vanessa Gilmore (19.0/49.6), who is currently presiding over the never-ending Enron Broadband trial.

- At the bottom of the Civil District Court judges' barrel is Tony "wife of Jon" Lindsay.

- Last and in some sense least is Justice of the Peace Betty Brock Bell, who scored an amazing 1.3% Outstanding/85.5% Poor. Bad ratings in this poll are nothing new to Judge Bell. Click that link to see her side of the story. Short version: this is a lawyers poll, and JP courts are not about lawyers.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on May 21, 2005 to Legal matters | TrackBack

Is there any reason to believe the reasons behind the ratings aren't at least partially political?

Posted by: Tim on May 22, 2005 7:44 AM

I'm sure there's some, Tim, but remember this: With the exception of the JPs, every single judge you see here is a Republican. If partisan motivations were a big factor, you'd see a lot more judges with high Poor ratings.

Posted by: Charles Kuffner on May 22, 2005 11:59 AM

Why are the poorly-rated lawyers overwhelmingly women? Is it possible that Texas lawyers don't like women judges? Or is there a reason that women on the bench in Texas appear to be poorer judges than their male counterparts?

Posted by: JR on May 22, 2005 12:58 PM

JR - Looking at all the judges with higher Poor than Outstanding ratings, I don't know that I'd agree with your statement. It looks pretty evenly split to me, at least among those with names that are clearly to me one gender or the other.

Posted by: Charles Kuffner on May 22, 2005 1:06 PM

My apologies, I didn't do a careful count- you're correct=

Posted by: JR on May 22, 2005 8:05 PM

Dear Charles: I am not a blind believer in lawyers opinions about judges nor am I dense enough to think that there are some bad judges amonst the mix. However, 1100+ opinion returns has a few deficits. For one, if we assume that all 1100 appeared before the Judges they rated, then 50% of the responses were from losers. Another reason is that it seems like 1100+ responses mean that many appeared before some judge at sometime. My experience says that is way too many "trial/appellate" lawyers. If some of these lawyers are DA's, it seems to me that the appellate respones are from the same DA's in the appeals department of major DA's office, e.g. Houston. For what it is worth, popularity contests are always of the mark. It would mean more to me if an independent group had rated the judges on their handling of juries and their written decisions. A really dumb judge can hire brains. If you recall, my law clerk was Phi Beta Kappa and a law review. Need I say more.
Here's to an independent judiciary.

Posted by: Dud on May 23, 2005 12:57 PM

Dad - There were 1100 total respondents, but they only rated the judges they'd appeared before. If you look in the table in the Chron story, the number that appears in parentheses after each judge's name is the number of respondents for that judge. The largest number I see anywhere is 513.

Posted by: Charles Kuffner on May 23, 2005 1:41 PM

Isn't this like the rank and file rating the strawbosses? Or like inmates rating the guards?

The HBA is presumptuous applying their standards on elected positions that do not require a law degree, such as the candidates and officeholders for JP and County Judge, while ignoring all or most other elected offices in which a law degree does not automatically disqualify the candidate and officeholder.

Posted by: Charles Hixon on May 23, 2005 2:22 PM

To JR:

Actually, your opinion is unsupported. The Texas Supreme Court Judge who was rated highest was a woman with a 55% favorable approval rating.

These appointment by Bush are in keeping with the cynical philosophy started with Clarence Thomas. You pick idealogues who are loyal and inadequate, but no one can question their credentials because of their background and minority status.

Posted by: Susan on May 24, 2005 1:34 PM