Judge Hill and the Appearance of Impropriety [Updated]

“[Judge Belinda] Hill confirmed Tuesday that she will leave the bench in the new year to work as Anderson’s first assistant.” Houston Chronicle, 11 December 2012.

Yet, I have learned, almost four weeks later Judge Hill is still on the bench, still hearing felony cases, still making calls that affect the lives of people being prosecuted by the DA’s Office to which she is affianced.

Did she not think this would be a problem?

Judge Hill is said to have plans to remain on the bench until someone else is appointed. From one perspective this might be seen as dedication to the job she was elected to do. From another perspective it might be seen as grossly improper: she has already committed to be taking the DA’s paycheck, which would give any reasonable person reason to question her impartiality.

Perhaps Judge Hill could, with Spocklike detachment, keep calling the balls and strikes, but a judge’s duty includes the avoidance of even the appearance of impropriety. 

To avoid further appearance of impropriety, Judge Hill needs to step down now, but even now is too late. She should have stepped down as soon as she agreed to take a job with the DA’s Office. Judge Hill has failed, and in failing has sullied her distinguished judicial career right at its very end.

This is—and I say this as someone who likes and respects Judge Hill—truly a shame.

[See ADA’s comment, below. I hope ADA is right, and if he is I’ll be sorry for not having enough confidence in Judge Hill.]

[Judge Hill resigned effective noon today. Her replacement will be announced at 1pm.]

Batty People Need Lawyers Too

This morning Lisa Simeone (TSA News) brings us  word of a TSA lawsuit that continues in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California:

[Nadine Hays] was arrested, handcuffed, strip-searched, and jailed after the TSA decided she was too uppity.…Prosecutors later charged her with battery.

The charge was dismissed. Hays is suing the TSA.

But apparently she’s representing herself in court….The latest news is that if she doesn’t cut her complaint down to size (25 double-spaced pages instead of 129), her case will be thrown out.

I’m on Nadine Hays’s side. I hope she wins. I also hope she gets some professional legal advice.

Will Nadine Hays get some professional legal advice? There are many reasons someone might be unrepresented in her §1983 action. Among them:

  • She might not have sought counsel;
  • She might not have money to pay counsel;
  • She might not have a good case; and
  • She might be batty.

Section 1983 is intended to punish violations of our civil rights including those that do not require broken bones or blood, but it's hard to find a civil-rights lawyer to take on a case that doesn't include such injuries for a contingent fee. (Section 1983 provides for attorney's fees if the plaintiff prevails, but apparently the math doesn't work out very well.) If you're suing on principle, you'd better be prepared to fund the lawsuit yourself. Most people don't have the resources to fund a lawsuit.

Finding a second lawyer to replace the first lawyer on a case is difficult and expensive—the second lawyer, if she is at all competent, is going to look closely both at what the first lawyer did (to determine what was screwed up, and whether it can be fixed) and why the client and the first lawyer parted ways (to determine if there is something wrong with the case or with the client).

Finding a lawyer to replace a pro se party on a case is even more difficult and expensive—the pro se has, almost by definition, screwed up the case; and there is likely something wrong with both case and client that no lawyer took it the case in the first place. While not every pro se lawsuit is filed by a madman, enough of them are that pro se filing might raise a reasonable presumption of madness. "Mad" doesn't mean "wrong," but lawyers often will decline to invite more madness into their lives, even for a case that is a potential winner.

Here, we don't have to look further than Hays's Second Amended Complaint to see why she doesn't have a lawyer:

Defendant Mary Frances Prevost (hereinafter "PREVOST") was Plaintiff's second criminal attorney. Plaintiff appreciates the fact that the criminal charges were finally dismissed and gives credit to PREVOST for helping to see that accomplished. Plaintiff is suing PREVOST at this time, however, for her unethical practices and for her failure to comply with Court orders. Plaintiff is willing to remove PREVOST as a defendant if she will apologize for her wrongs and simply speak honestly with Plaintiff so Plaintiff can properly prepare for her Federal lawsuit trial.

From Pages 18-19 of the Second Amended Complaint (pdf) in Hays v. U.S.

That is, she is trying to sue, in a §1983 action, the criminal-defense lawyer who won her criminal case, making the §1983 suit possible. Not only that, but she's suing Prevost on principle, using the lawsuit to try to get from her something that the court cannot order Prevost to do.

Hays is also suing her first criminal-defense lawyer, who didn't get her criminal case dismissed, and the first judge on her criminal case, asking that each of them purge himself of his mistakes and "speak honestly" with her. (Want an uncooperative witness to speak honestly with you? Take his deposition.)

There are clients who will attack their previous lawyers with lawsuits and grievances at every turning. Ms. Hays appears to be one of those. Such clients are as entitled to counsel as anyone else, but aside from alienating the people who could have continued to help and support them (for example, by "speaking honestly" with them) they narrow their choices of counsel in the future. Few lawyers want to sign on for a turn in the barrel.

Prevost advertises that she handles civil-rights cases. She presumably had an opportunity to evaluate Hays's §1983 case when she was representing her on the criminal case. Ms. Hays may already have received professional legal advice that she didn't want to hear or follow. Odds are that Simeone's hopes are forlorn, and Hays is not going to find a lawyer to take on her case. Which is a shame, because TSA needs to be well and thoroughly sued at every opportunity.