You may recall my focus on the failures of former Family Court Judge Denise Pratt, her resignation under fire, and the mess she left behind. Well, the Houston Chronicle's Kiah Collier is doing a public service with this first piece in a multi-part series on Pratt's failings and the harm she did to the families of Harris County.
For Kevin Bates, landing in Judge Denise Pratt's court meant not seeing his 16-year-old daughter for nearly a year while he waited on a contempt ruling to force his ex-wife to surrender the teen for weekend visits.
For Katrina Fischer, it meant being forced from her home on Thursday evenings and every other weekend after the freshman jurist said she was banning her from being around her fiancÚ's three children from a previous marriage.
For Lance Ellington, it meant spending more than $44,000 fighting his ex-wife's decision to home-school their daughters only to find out that Pratt had dismissed the unresolved case without letting either side know.
In the weeks following the Pratt's surprise resignation on March 28, the human toll the family court judge's decisions took on Houston-area families in her three-plus years on the bench is coming into sharp focus. While it is difficult to objectively quantify wrongdoing in the high-drama family courts, interviews with dozens of families and lawyers make clear that her actions exacerbated situations for people already in the midst of the worst times in their lives.
Many of the complaints lodged against Pratt in recent months have centered on administrative issues, but lawyers also say her rulings sometimes strayed beyond the bounds of the law.
Pratt was out of control, imposing blanket rules that played havoc with families. Take, for example, this rule.
"When someone files for divorce who has children and they request a temporary restraining order that orders that the parents not have their children around their girlfriend, boyfriend, lover or paramour from 10 p.m to 8 a.m., we changed that to read: You are not to have your children around your girlfriend, boyfriend, lover or paramour at all," Pratt said in a campaign video.
In other words, not only was cohabitation while the children were present forbidden (a policy that one can argue either way about), but children were forbidden to even meet a future step-parent until after a wedding took place. Clearly that was not in the best interests of the children -- but it somehow fulfilled Pratt's own warped sense of morality.
And then there was this silly provision put in at least one order.
Some of Pratt's decisions, apparently guided by her personal philosophy, complicated Fischer's life in other ways. In a handwritten rendition dictating the terms of the temporary order, the judge ordered Fischer's soon-to-be husband and his ex-wife to meet every week to talk while the children attended Sunday school. She also said the children were not allowed to ride in an automobile with anyone except their biological parents, which meant they no longer could ride a bus to school.
No school bus. No car pools. No trips to the movies or swimming pool with friends where the friends' parents drove. The order is absurd -- but Pratt abused her discretion to impose a completely illogical provision. And for that matter, it appears that Pratt's order REQUIRED that the children attend Sunday School -- a clear violation of the First Amendment.
And don't forget the parade of horrors that resulted from Pratt's mass dismissal of cases at the end of 2013 -- a move that appeared based upon a desire to improve her efficiency statistics than upon a desire to more the wheels of justice.
In one of the cases, Pratt's dismissal allowed a soon-to-be ex-wife to return to the family home and demand to move back in. In another, a mother who had lost custody of her young son when she married a convicted sex offender, showed up to a supervised visitation site and demanded to take him back. Pratt had, according to court documents, found that "for the child to remain in the home of the mother is contrary to the welfare of the child."
"We had no choice but to turn him over," said Marinelle Timmons, executive director of the Victim Assistance Centre, which runs a decades-old court supervised visitation program, noting the new husband had been accused of holding a knife to the little boy's throat. "I went to the office and I called CPS and made a report and was begging them, practically, to see if there was any intervention they could do."
The sad thing in all of this? Despite Pratt's malfeasance, misfeasance, and nonfeasance in office, she remains completely immune from being held to account for the damage she has done to thousands (perhaps tens of thousands) of people here in Harris County. As a judge, she has a virtually unassailable immunity from civil damages, meaning she will never be held personally accountable for the hundreds of thousands of dollars (perhaps even millions) in unnecessary and duplicate legal fees that she caused to those who appeared in her courtroom over the course of three years. Those folks will never be made whole financially -- and we won't even get into the human toll that no dollar amount could ever fully remedy. We can only hope for criminal charges and sanctions that strip her of her ability to practice law and, consequently, to be a judge. Perhaps, if the Department of Justice were to pay attention to protecting the people rather than covering up the failures of Barack Obama, the federal government might take an interest in what went on in Pratt's court.
In the mean time, we have to remember to get out to vote in the May 27 runoff election, to make sure that Alicia Franklin wins the GOP nomination in the race for the 311th Court rather than the derelict vessel that is the Pratt candidacy.
And while we are at it, it is important that in the runoff for the 247th Court that we nominate Associate Judge Meca Walker as our candidate for presiding judge of that court rather than her opponent, John Schmude. After all, Walker has years of experience as a Family Court judge while Schmude barely meets the legal requirements to be elected -- and is backed by the same slate-makers who assured Harris County Republicans that Denise Pratt was superbly qualified to be a judge and the same donors who were giving money to the Pratt campaign right up until the day she resigned. Because justice and competence -- especially in our Family Courts -- matters.