Friday, October 12, 2007

Is Houston Judge Fit to Remain on the Bench?

I have the deepest sympathy for Elizabeth Shelton, the University of St. Thomas student who got very drunk with her boyfriend last October, went on a 2:00 a.m. joy ride with him hanging out the window, and then rear ended a truck on a major freeway at a high rate of speed, killing him. Anyone who has driven after having too much to drink can understand how awful she must feel and how jail time for intoxication manslaughter might be something she would find unbearable, on top of the guilt she must live with for the rest of her life.

And I sympathize with her parents' protective instinct to do and say anything that might spare their daughter more pain.

But I also agree with columnist Rick Casey, writing in today's Houston Chronicle, that as a State District Judge in a family court where nearly half the cases involve juveniles charged with crimes, her father Pat Shelton engaged in conduct during his daughter's trial that calls into question his fitness to remain on the bench. Casey's column follows.

State District Judge Pat Shelton isn't up for re-election until 2010.

I hope at that time voters don't visit upon him the sins of his daughter, who was convicted Tuesday of intoxication manslaughter.

He has enough sins of his own for voters to consider.

They are sins for which a father might be forgiven, but for which a judge should be judged.

In this case, his behavior is especially relevant since Shelton presides over a family court, with nearly half his caseload devoted to juveniles charged with crimes.

Elizabeth Shelton tested at three times the blood-alcohol limit last October after slamming her Lexus SUV into the back of a box truck at 2 a.m. on U.S. 59. Her longtime boyfriend was killed instantly.

Since Judge Shelton and his wife weren't tried for bad parenting, we don't have enough information to consider their share of responsibility. (And the humbling experience of being a parent would make me pray I wasn't chosen as a juror in such a trial.)

But Shelton did engage in conduct during the trial that raises questions about his suitability as a judge.

In an antagonistic exchange with the prosecutor, Shelton first attacked the driver whose truck his daughter hit.

He said his daughter told him at the hospital that night that the driver had swerved into her lane at the last minute. But a doctor at the hospital had a different recollection.

"When her mom and dad were there, she said, 'It's my fault, and I do not want to live,' " the doctor testified.

What's more, when a person is that drunk, it may have appeared that the entire highway was swerving all over the place.

An expert for the defense testified there was evidence the driver did swerve, but an expert for the prosecution said there was none. That's the nature of paid courtroom expertise: It almost always agrees with the people writing the check.

But Judge Shelton took it further. He accused the driver of having no insurance and of being the subject of a hot check warrant.

The judge had done at least some research. It turns out the insurance on the truck had lapsed. But it was a company truck and someone else at the company was responsible for paying the bills.

And the hot check warrant? Let's give the judge the benefit of the doubt: He was mistaken.

It's OK for fathers to be mistaken, although it's stupid from the witness stand since being caught hurts one's credibility.

But lawyers and judges should know to be very careful about making unfounded accusations in court.

The worst accusation Shelton made against the truck driver was that he should have been charged for leaving the scene of the accident.

"You should not cherry pick who you want to favor and who you want to put down," Shelton told prosecutor Paul Doyle. "No one is above the law."

But the driver explained that he pulled off U.S. 59 because it wasn't safe to stay in the middle of the freeway or to back up to where the wrecked car was.

"I got off at the Buffalo Speedway and made a U-turn and came back around as quick as I could," said Lance Bennett on Thursday.

"That man slandered me," he said. "He shouldn't be a judge."

Shelton also argued that Doyle should have prosecuted Federico Vasquez, who stopped to assist at the scene. He testified he was going about 60 mph when the Lexus sped by him, lost control and crashed into the truck.

Shelton alleged Vasquez was an illegal immigrant. There was no testimony as to Vasquez's citizenship, so we don't know if Shelton just assumed that anyone with that name who testified against his daughter must be an illegal immigrant.

But if Vasquez is, the last thing that should happen is to be deported because he stopped to give aid and stuck around to tell the police what he had seen.

Prosecutor Doyle responded by raising his voice: "The same man who stopped to aid your daughter, to do the right thing, you're attacking his citizenship status? Are you kidding me?"

But Shelton wasn't kidding. I don't blame him for not wanting his daughter prosecuted. It would be a cold father who did.

But to attack two innocent people whose "crime" was to be in her drunken path?

I'm with the truck driver. He shouldn't be a judge.


Anonymous said...

No, he needs to be remove as soon as possible. I would not trust a family Judge who purposely favors his daugther in the court of law and turn a blind eye at the truth. It is in Gods eyes that he will have to answer to someday... but it is with us, who have the power to remove an injustice man off the bench

Gerald T Floyd said...

Today comes word that the daughter is now suing the driver of the truck she hit, and also suing assorted other third parties. See

Given the record, it's hard to fathom the suit being filed without the judge's active encouragement and participation. More conduct unbecoming, I fear.