The two candidates to be the judge at the 428th District Court met at a candidate forum sponsored last month by the Fraternal Order of Police and the Hays County Law Enforcement Association. Democratic challenger Scot Courtney is on the left and Republican incumbent Bill Henry is on the right. Photo by Sean Batura.
By SEAN BATURA
The race for 428th district court judge took a contentious turn early as the two candidates sparred last month at a candidate forum sponsored by the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) and the Hays County Law Enforcement Association (HCLEA).
Democrat and attorney Scot R. Courtney made some attacks on the job performance — and even the off-work behavior — of incumbent Republican Bill Henry, accusing Henry of letting politics “infiltrate” the only state district court exclusively serving Hays County.
“I disagree with Judge Henry that being that involved in the community makes him a better judge,” Courtney said. “I disagree. A judge, in my opinion, should be separate and apart from the political fray. Because those are the people that are going to come in front of that judge and ask him to make hard decisions about who’s right and who’s wrong. And that judge can’t have a dog in the fight. I don’t owe anybody. I’m not a member of every civic organization there is.”
Henry said a judge is made stronger and better, not tainted, by being active in the community.
“Something about politics: I’ll tell you, when good lawyers get a ruling against them, they take their lumps and move on to the next case,” Henry said. “When bad lawyers get a ruling against them, they call it politics and throw a tantrum. The fact of the matter is, I’m invested in this community. I get up every morning and try to figure out how we can make this community a better place.”
Henry’s campaign website features a “Community Involvement” page that lists civic, political, religious, and professional organizations with which he is affiliated. Courtney’s campaign website only lists his affiliations with professional organizations.
“I owe no one,” Courtney said. “But for my ex-partner that taught me many, many things about the practice of law, and the support of my family and my wife, I’m a self-made man. I don’t owe the governor for my job. I don’t owe the commissioners for creating the court.”
At the FOP/HCLEA debate, Henry said he was “instrumental” in working with the Hays County Commissioners Court and the Texas Legislature to get the 428th district court established in 2004.
In answer to a question from the FOP/HCLEA membership regarding how to prevent cases from being continued “for an extensive amount of time,” Courtney said “there is no excuse” for what he said is a backlog of cases in the 428th district court.
Henry replied both sides in cases use continuances for “legitimate” reasons and “tactical” reasons. Henry said even the use of continuances for legitimate reasons poses case management challenges. Henry said he intends to “lock down on that a little bit,” but warned that restricting continuances may not help the state or the defense in all cases.
“We run the most efficient court in the history of this county,” Henry said. “We run a tight ship. The fact of the matter is that people move their cases. We’ll handle more cases in a good morning than my opponent has handled in four years in this county — more felony cases. The fact is that we keep a tight rein on that and work to move those cases. I think we do as well as any judge in this county and we do it better or as well as any other court in the history of this county.”
Courtney said Henry is not managing the court’s docket effectively.
“I have practiced all throughout the entire state, and I have seen all the different systems and how it’s done,” Courtney said. “And I have seen how it’s done effectively, and I would like to bring that to Hays County. I agree, there’s no excuse for it. Judge Henry suggests that he wants to look at it. He’s going to lock down on it in the future. Well, there’s been six years of it. The time to lock down has passed.”
The last question from the FOP/HCLEA membership to the candidates also involved case management.
“Subpoenas are issued for cases and frequently the (police) officers do not find out about it until the last minute whether or not their case will go to trial,” stated the FOP/HCLEA question. “Officers have to sit for hours or wait for days for their time on the stand when the case finally gets called for trial. This often results in the officer losing sleep, or loss of wages and manpower shortages on the streets. What can you do to help make this problem more manageable and insure more timely appearances for officer witnesses in a trial?”
Courtney said the fact FOP/HCLEA asked such questions is proof the 428th district court has “shortcomings.”
“Many times, we don’t know what cases are going to go to trial the next Monday,” Courtney said. “Nobody — the prosecutors or the defense attorneys, much less the witnesses or the victims, witnesses usually being law enforcement officers. I’ve been in many, many jurisdictions where the judge sternly tells everybody there, ‘Look, these are the cases that are going, period. Be here Monday ready to go. Tell your witnesses to be here Tuesday morning ready to go.’ I think a firm hand on the tiller keeps cases moving on.”
Henry said his office has a jury docket once every two weeks whereby a jury is picked and a case scheduled. Henry said Courtney has argued at one jury trial before the 428th district court.
“In other words, on Thursday we know we’re going to have a jury trial for the next Monday,” Henry said. “That gives the prosecutors lead time, it gives the defense attorneys lead time, it gives law enforcement lead time. Now, there are times when there is a last-minute plea deal. We don’t like that. We get the lawyers in and talk to them about how they’ve wasted time. But, for the most part, we know early on. Another way to handle that problem is to go ahead and run a tight ship on the jail. In other words, I usually try cases probably faster than any other judge because I don’t want my law enforcement officers sitting around the courtroom for hours and hours at a time.”Email | Print