By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
WHEN IT COMES to crafting conspiracy theories, Oliver Stone has nothing on Judge Sally Montgomery. Facing a relentless, flat-out obsessive challenger in the Democratic primary for her county judge seat, Montgomery has several explanations for why so many people think that the only time she should sit on the bench is when she's waiting for a bus.
• Montgomery claims the largely Republican membership of the Dallas Bar Association resents her decision to switch political parties in 2002 and that caused her to get well below a 50 percent approval rating in two recent polls of local lawyers, by far the lowest among her peers.
•Montgomery says the mediocre judicial evaluation she received when she was a Republican in 1999 stemmed from a falling out with the then Republican county chairman, who pressured his colleagues in the Dallas Bar to give her poor marks.
•The Texas Observer, which recently named her the second worst judge in the entire state, came about its decision recklessly because the reporter assigned to the story used incorrect methodology to determine her rate of overturned decisions.
•The Dallas Morning Newseditorial board, which referred to her as "arrogant and capricious," failed to endorse her in the primary because it has difficulties with women.
If it's exhausting to hear Sally Montgomery alternate between her tales of woe and boasts of judicial courage, talking to her primary opponent Baltasar Cruz provides no relief. The challenger himself was sanctioned in Montgomery's court after filing an assault complaint in 2004 against another lawyer, whom Cruz claimed squeezed his arm in front of the judge herself. Montgomery ordered Cruz to pay the opposing counsel's legal fees regardless of whether the opponent was convicted of assault. (He wasn't. He died.)
"I don't think there has ever been a case in the history of Western jurisprudence where a crime victim has been ordered to pay the criminal defense attorney fees of the person who injured him," Cruz says.
This year--again--is supposed to mark the resurgence of the Democratic Party in Dallas County, and while demographic trends and recent elections hint at a comeback, the Montgomery vs. Cruz race shows that the party out of power has a rather second-rate bench. While the Republican primary for Montgomery's county court-at-law seat features two affable candidates in Robert Reagan and John Stilwell, the Democratic incumbent and challenger are buried in a petty, vicious feud that only seems to highlight their flaws.
"There is an underlying personal agenda that has colored the political agenda," says Dallas County Democratic Party Chair Darlene Ewing. "That's made it more of a personality race than on judicial qualifications."
That can only help Montgomery, whom many consider the worst judge in Dallas. As a civil judge, Montgomery hears a variety of cases from wrongful-termination suits to insurance claims. In the last judicial evaluation poll, filled out by 689 local attorneys, only 35 percent of those polled approved of the judge's overall performance, with 33 percent concluding that she demonstrated an adequate knowledge of the law. In contrast, three of Montgomery's colleagues on the county court bench had an average approval rating of 90 percent. The next lowest ranked judge had a 60 percent approval rating.
"She's one of those judges who seems to want to do what, in her mind, is the right thing and sometimes she will ignore the law to get to the right answer," says one attorney who did not want to be named because he argues cases in her court. "I wouldn't classify her as a Democrat or a Republican; I'd classify her as an activist."
Montgomery herself does little to prove otherwise in an interview where she claims that her critics are fighting for the status quo.
She also discounts the judicial polls as being biased and overly subjective. Meanwhile, Montgomery's campaign manager, Sunny Letot, seems to view her candidates' poll results as a badge of honor.
"Judge Montgomery is not liked by big law firms," she says.
Montgomery interjects, "Not all big law firms; some like me."
Montgomery's advisors add that the corporate law firms dominate the polls, and they tend to prefer Republican judges who are more likely to side with their well-heeled clients. In contrast, plaintiff's attorneys, who are more likely to practice on their own, aren't as likely to belong to the Dallas Bar Association and can't vote.
Travis Vanderpool, a member of the board of directors for the Texas Bar and co-chair of the Dallas Bar Association, says he doubts the poll is manipulated for partisan ends. "I really believe that most lawyers just look to see how a judge is performing," he says. "What you want on the bench is a judge who knows the law, understands the law and knows how to apply the law."
It would be easier for Montgomery to claim that the poll is biased against Democrats if she had not earned similar poor marks when she served as a civil district judge as a Republican. She would later switch parties after she lost in 2000 to Karen Johnson. As a member of the GOP, however, Montgomery earned a 57 percent approval rating, with 51 percent concluding that she correctly applied the law. Here Montgomery blames Bob Driegart, the former chairman of the Dallas County Republican Party. Montgomery claims Driegart once pressured her husband to persuade Montgomery to change her mind on a case. When she refused, Driegart urged his colleagues in the Dallas Bar to give her poor marks, she says.