|Don’t Overlook the Judicial Races: Know Before You Vote (Part 2 of 2) (Cached Version) (Online Link)|
|by John Browning||Thu, Oct 30, 2008, 05:10 PM|
In the previous installment in this two-part series, I discussed how voters in Texas tend to overlook the down ballot judicial races, often because they just don’t know enough about the candidate involved in these contests. For many of us, the decisions that appellate court justices make can impact our lives in very real ways, yet Texans remain woefully ignorant of who are the people behind the black robes. In a 1999 poll 93% of the Texas voters surveyed couldn’t name a single justice on the Texas Supreme Court. And an earlier poll found that voters believed the Texas Supreme Court was soft on crime – despite the fact that the highest criminal court in Texas is actually the Court of Criminal Appeals. Both the previous column and this one examine the races this November for three seats on the 5th District Court of Appeals, where appeals of civil and criminal cases are heard from an area encompassing Dallas, Rockwall, Hunt, Collin, Grayson, and Kaufman Counties. This week, we look at the Place 6 contest between Republican incumbent Justice David Bridges and Dallas family court Judge David Hanschen.
What do we know about Justice David Bridges? Well, he’s been on the 5th District Court of Appeals for twelve years, having been first elected in 1996 and re-elected in 2002. In that time, he’s written more than 1,200 opinions on a wide variety of cases. Significantly, his opponent in this does not find fault with any of them. Justice Bridges received his undergraduate degree from the University of Texas at Tyler, and went on to earn his law degree from Texas Tech University School of Law. While in law school, he worked for Palo Duro Legal Aid, helping migrant workers and the poor with family law matters. After law school, Bridges worked as a prosecutor in the Smith County D.A.’s office, and later the Upshur County D.A.’s office, trying all types of felony cases, including robberies, sexual assaults, and murder. He argued his first appellate case, a capital murder case, before the Court of Criminal Appeals in 1985. In 1988, Bridges became a senior trial attorney for the State Bar of Texas, and in that capacity he traveled statewide prosecuting lawyers for misconduct. He was steadily promoted, becoming the State Bar’s Regional Counsel and later its First Assistant General Counsel in charge of disciplinary litigation against lawyers throughout Texas.
Given his experience, it comes as no surprise that Justice Bridges is board-certified in criminal law, a distinction enjoyed by only a small percentage of lawyers who focus their practices on this area. He has been a frequent speaker for law schools and bar associations, and has served on a number of bar association committees, including a stint as co-chair of the Dallas Bar Association’s Judiciary Committee. But take the judge out of the courtroom, and you’ll find a David Bridges who brings the same zeal to civic life as he does to his professional existence. For years, he has volunteered at the local elementary school, and received the President’s Volunteer Service Award in 2007 for putting in over 150 hours at the school. A Head Start volunteer for 13 years, Justice Bridges has done everything from serving as a reader for their classes to donating books and helping with annual training programs. He and his wife Sandy, a teacher, have volunteered at the nursery at First Baptist Church for over 11 years.
Justice Bridges’ philosophy is one of judicial restraint; appellate justices, he quickly points out, are not there to substitute their beliefs for those of the legislature, and they are required "not to sit as a thirteenth juror." Appellate judges consider only the written record before them in rendering their decisions, and do not hear new evidence or testimony.
Justice Bridges has evidently earned bipartisan respect among lawyers. Like Justice Fitzgerald and Judge Murphy, Justice Bridges received more votes than his opponent in the State Bar Judicial Evaluation Poll. He has received donations from Democrats and Republicans alike, and his contributors include not only large defense firms like Haynes & Boone and Baker Botts, but also prominent plaintiff’s attorneys like Frank Branson and Mark Lanier. Bridges has been endorsed by numerous elected officials and individuals, as well as by the Texas Municipal Police Association and the Dallas Morning News. In doing so, the newspaper noted "Experience shows, and for that reason Justice Bridges, 53, is the superior choice in this contest."
The gap in experience between Justice Bridges and his Democratic opponent is a glaring one. When asked by the Dallas Morning News what prompted him to run for office, Judge David Hanschen stated that he was "drawn to the challenges, both intellectual and professional, that appeals work presents." Evidently he hasn’t been drawn to it for very long, since I could find no record of Judge Hanschen handling an appeal of any kind prior to assuming the trial court bench in January 2007. On his website and in his campaign materials, Judge Hanschen points to his "unusually broad background," which he considers to be "well suited to the challenges faced by Justices of the 5th District Court of Appeals."
If you think you caught something there, you’re right. The very same judge who currently presides over a family law bench and makes daily decisions about the relationships of others is a grizzled veteran of the divorce wars; while one source familiar with Judge Hanschen estimated that he’s been married "four or five times," I have only been able to verify three marriages and subsequent divorces. Small wonder, then that he decided later in life to pursue a law degree at Southern Methodist University School of Law (he earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of North Texas in 1975), and eventually practice family law. The normal law school curriculum is three years; it took David Hanschen five years to ultimately earn his J.D. in 1992.
From 1992 to 2007, he hung out his own shingle and practiced family law. In 2002, David Hanschen made an unsuccessful run for the bench of the 330th Judicial District Court, a Dallas family court. During the race, his campaign materials touted his experience "over 4 years as a weekly visiting Associate Judge" for family courts in Dallas, with hundreds of cases heard. In subsequent campaigning, Judge Hanschen seems to have toned this down; his current website states that he "served on several occasions over a five year period" in Dallas County courts as a visiting Associate Judge/Master in Chancery. At the time he made his previous run for office, Judge Hanschen pointed to the fact that he had never been the subject of a disciplinary action. During his current campaign, however, Judge Hanschen acknowledges that he did have a grievance filed against him; according to him, it was summarily dismissed. In 2006, he was also sued in Dallas County by a former client, Rupert Pollard, who claimed that Hanschen had mishandled a family law matter in which he represented Pollard. Pollard made claims of breach of fiduciary duty, fraud, and professional negligence; he also had a dispute over fees paid to the lawyer, and maintained that "Hanschen’s lying, cheating, and self-dealing" caused Pollard severe emotional distress. Judge Hanschen denies these claims, and the case is sets for trial in February, 2009.
In November 2006, during the Democratic sweep of the Dallas County judicial races, David Hanschen was elected judge of the 254th District Court in Dallas County, a family court. With his long gray braided ponytail, Judge Hanschen cut an unconventional figure at the courthouse, and quickly courted controversy in other ways. A number of family law practitioners have taken exception with the way Hanschen runs his docket, particularly with regard to his policy of not automatically granting continuances that lawyers have agreed on, and concerning time limitations on contested hearings and even trials. While Judge Hanschen says that he was "misquoted," he does maintain that moving cases along on his docket is a priority for him.
He has also attracted controversy for the manner in which he approaches existing laws. The self-described "liberal activist judge" has gone on record characterizing child support guidelines promulgated by the Texas Attorney General’s Office as a "fossilized rule" from which he would not hesitate to depart. And while many judges in family law cases (including the majority of Collin County judges) have embraced the expedience of using special judges to hear uncontested divorce trials in "office prove-ups" (so called because the parties agree on a judge who will hear the agreed matter in an environment other than the courthouse), Judge Hanschen has not. Hal Davis, a local divorce lawyer who maintains a blog on "civilized divorce," finds it curious that Judge Hanschen doesn’t allow such "office prove-ups" while being open to having the special judge hear such matters at the courthouse; according to Davis, the statute that authorizes these special judges specifically prohibits them from conducting these proceedings at the courthouse or on other public property.
Judge Hanschen also made headlines earlier this year for a Dallas Observer cover story on Texas laws governing the presumption of paternity in child support. Currently, Texas law mandates that unless a father contests paternity within four years of a child’s birth, he is legally presumed to be the biological father and therefore on the hook for child support obligations. Judge Hanschen has publicly sparred with the Texas Attorney General’s office over this presumptive paternity, and earlier this year he came out on the losing end. On March 12, 2008, the very Court of Appeals that he wants to join ruled that Judge Hanschen had gone too far by ordering paternity testing in a case long after the four year limitations period had expired. Justice Douglas Lang wrote in the court’s opinion that "[A]lthough the judge’s position is that there should be no statute of limitations on the truth and it’s in the best interests of the children to know who their father is, such determinations are a matter for the Legislature, not the trial court."
One might think that such an experience might have motivated Judge Hanschen to seek a seat on the Court of Appeals. In fact, it was only months after taking office on the family court bench that Judge Hanschen revealed his intentions to run for the appellate court, despite his assurances to voters that family law was his chosen niche. Certainly, after his surprise win in November 2006 Hanschen seemed to be feeling his oats. He was elected after running what might be called a shoestring campaign: campaign finance reports filed with the Texas Ethics Commission show that Hanschen raised only $3,500.00 in campaign contributions prior to being elected (he personally loaned his campaign another $18,825). His total campaign expenditures during that time period amounted to $21,624.33. But Texas law permits such candidates to raise money for a limited time period after being elected to retire campaign debt, and newly-elected Judge Hanschen fully availed himself of this.
According to a veteran Democratic insider familiar with Judge Hanschen, his campaign went to family law firms and practitioners likely to have matters in his court, representing that the campaign was "$50,000 in debt." In fact, it was not even close to that amount, and the intimations that the campaign was deeper in debt than it actually was rankled observers. The aforementioned Democratic insider even speculated that such a discrepancy could have led to an ethics complaint being filed. Upon contacting the Texas Ethics Commission to inquire about this, spokesman Tim Sorrels informed me that the Commission "can neither confirm nor deny that any complaints were filed." Nevertheless, during the period from Oct. 29, 2006 to Dec. 31, 2006, Judge Hanschen raised over $25,000 – more than enough to pay back the loans he’d made to his campaign, and much of it from heavy hitting family law firms like Koons Fuller Vanden Eykel & Robertson ($5,000) and McCurley Orsinger McCurley Nelson & Downing ($2,500). Between January 1, 2007 and June 30, 2007, he raised even more money - $42,010.00. Again, prominent family lawyers came through for him, with $7,500 coming from Koons Fuller Vander Eykel & Robertson and another $10,000 donated by the McCurley firm. By November 2007, when Judge Hanschen was paying for a mailbox, campaign software, and other expenses for his appellate bid, he had amassed a substantial war chest.
Incidentally, in filing his campaign finance reports (documents which under the Election Code are done under oath), Judge Hanschen lists one address (3551 Rosedale), while the Dallas Central Appraisal District lists him at a slightly different address (3549 Rosedale). Details don’t appear to be the judge’s strong suit; after all, some of his campaign materials appealing to voters in the six county area served by the Court of Appeals incorrectly spells Kaufman County as "Kaufmann County."
So there you have it: come November 4, 2008 the voters will decide: will it be incumbent Justice David Bridges, with 25 years of legal credentials, including 12 years on the appellate bench, and a model of judicial restraint, or Judge David Hanschen, with barely 22 months on the family court bench and no appellate experience to speak of, an activist whom some lawyers say "sets himself above the law?" A Democratic insider familiar with Judge Hanschen said of him, "He sees being a judge as a way to play God." Perhaps the most important observation is the simplest: as the Dallas Morning News observed, Hanschen’s "qualifications fall short of his opponent’s."