Judge Joan Campbell’s Legacy

Two views of recently retired judge Joan Campbell:

I say, “the criminal-defense bar’s view,” but of course there is more than one view represented in Harris County’s criminal-defense bar. Some criminal-defense lawyers—at least one of whom aspires to be the next president-elect of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association—would vocally disagree with Fickman telling the truth about Campbell. These lawyers take the position that “we should avoid making enemies” is a good excuse for not doing the right thing. They would rather give judges (metaphorical?) handjobs or kolaches than file judicial-conduct complaints.

If Judge George Godwin told one of those handjob-and-kolache lawyers…

that any attack by the defense bar on his brethren or “sistren” of the judiciary, would be viewed as an attack  on all of them.

…the lawyer would certainly get the message and resist doing anything that might be construed as an attack. Not that he would need to be told, of course: “don’t attack judges or prosecutors” is a principle fundamental to the H&K bar.

(This “judicial NATO” seems to exist. In 2010 there was a meeting of judges at which judges who had opponents in the upcoming election encouraged the other judges not to give those opponents court appointments. Some seem to have agreed. I have a term for that: judicial corruption.)

Robb Fickman is made of sterner stuff than the H&K crowd. He belongs to the criminal-defense wing of the criminal-defense bar. If something needs saying, Fickman is not going to be deterred by the fact that saying it will make him enemies.

Fickman is a real criminal-defense lawyer, and that’s what real criminal-defense lawyers do. By definition, the job requires bucking the opinion of the majority. When we are doing the job, we say the things that nobody wants to admit are true; we point out that the emperor has no clothes; we save Frankenstein’s monster from the mob. So the mob doesn’t much care for us.

The Harris County criminal-defense bar organized in 1970. It filed its first judicial grievance, against Joan Campbell, thirty-six years later, when Fickman was president. In the last seven years it has filed five. This is Judge Joan Campbell’s legacy: the principle that abuses of power by Harris County criminal judges will no longer go unanswered by the organized criminal-defense bar. 

When HCCLA (640 members strong, and counting) files a grievance against a judge, it takes the heat off the lawyers who would like to file complaints but don’t because they are concerned that the judges may retaliate in a way that will harm them (see “judicial corruption,” above) or their clients. 

The H&K lawyers would return us to those halcyon early days of HCCLA having a couple of parties every year, comping the judges and prosecutors, and providing the (metaphorical) lotion and napkins. Fickman was one of the prime motivators for HCCLA’s conversion from bench-bar party hostess to courthouse power. He didn’t do it singlehandedly, but Fickman got us a seat at the table.

But the Commission for Judicial Conduct has never done bupkis about any of our complaints. I have long believed that negative publicity is a better spur to better judicial conduct than the CJC. So I have written here and spoken elsewhere about Ruben Guerrero, the worst judge in the criminal courthouse (though it wasn’t enough to get the voters to fire him in November) and Jim Anderson, the worst judge in the criminal courthouse emeritus (though it has not yet been enough to get the sitting judges to stop letting him sit). Here’s why I don’t worry about that: I don’t take court appointments—so pissed-off judges can’t hurt my bottom line—and any judge who is going to screw my clients because of something I write is already screwing them, so I might as well write. Also pour encourager les autres. But it was getting lonesome being the one guy naming names.

For those reasons, please give Robb Fickman a warm welcome to the practical blawgosphere. 

About Mark Bennett

Mark Bennett got his letter of marque from the Supreme Court of Texas in May 1995. He is famous for having no sense of humor when it comes to totalitarianism.
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