Trial by Fire

A rookie Democratic judge faces tough on-the-job training

There are hazards in allowing partisan voters to select local judges. As a defense attorney, Carter Thompson handles mostly low-profile misdemeanor cases, which are typically easy to turn around and bill than the more languid and complicated felony cases such as aggravated assault and murder. Then Thompson ran for criminal district judge, raised around $5,000 and, thanks to well more 100,000 straight-ticket voters in Dallas County, found himself propelled to the bench. Now the accidental jurist is within months of presiding over one of the most notorious death penalty cases in recent legal history, the trial of Thomas Miller-El, first convicted of murdering a clerk at a Dallas Holiday Inn in 1986.

"Most of the judges that come up as district judges are people who have handled felony cases," says Judge Manny Alvarez, who says that Thompson, the Democrat who defeated him in November, doesn't have the experience for the job. "He's going to learn, and he's going to learn by being tossed into the line of fire, but gosh, that's a tough case to begin your career."

Here's how tough: The U.S. Supreme Court heard this case twice, in 2003 and in 2004. The first time, the court sent it back to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and ordered it to examine evidence that prosecutors had methodically weeded blacks out of Miller-El's jury. The appeals court essentially refused the higher court's order, stunning appellate lawyers and legal experts across the country. The court not only rejected Miller-El's claims, but in its decision it reproduced word-for-word and without attribution the sole dissenting opinion from Justice Clarence Thomas, something The New York Times would later describe as "akin to plagiarism." The Supreme Court then took the case back, rebuked the court and Texas prosecutors and ordered a new trial.

In February, jury selection will begin for Miller-El's new trial in Thompson's court room. In the days leading up to the election and immediately after, local Republicans assailed the qualifications of many of the Democratic judicial candidates, even though several of their own incumbents have issued highly questionable rulings in recent years. Still, after his defeat, Alvarez has continued to question the makeup of his successor, which naturally doesn't sit well with the new judge.

"He likes to talk about his opponent isn't qualified," Thompson says. "I was trying cases in criminal courts when he was still in law school. I expect these sour grapes from him."

But Thompson concedes that he handles mostly misdemeanor cases, and when he does list some of his more recent felony cases, many of them were tried with other attorneys. In addition, Thompson had not tried enough felony cases to be eligible to receive court appointments to represent defendants in the felony courts, Alvarez says.

"I have four cases I need to appoint this morning. I couldn't give him a case if I wanted to," the judge said shortly after his defeat. "It's not a personal thing. Let's set aside the fact that I lost. He's going to have to make judgment calls in a second doing things that he hasn't done before."

Thompson says that he is not on the list of court-appointed lawyers by choice.

"There are plenty of lawyers who don't do court appointments," he said in an interview shortly after his election. Thompson adds that as both a former prosecutor (he worked at the Dallas County District Attorney's Office in the 1980s) and defense attorney, he's far more experienced than many of the Republican judges who have been elected in recent years. Instead of questioning the qualifications of their successors, they should take a long, hard look into the mirror.

"I expect there are a lot of Republican judges crying in their beer and blaming everyone else, but the fact is they have been ignoring the public, and it's come back to haunt them," Thompson says.

For his part, Alvarez says that this is not about party politics and that he's looking forward to returning to criminal defense law. It's just bewildering that the man who is replacing him was a stranger in the courtroom where he's within weeks of presiding over the trial of Miller-El. Other new Democratic judges Alvarez mentions, such as Lena Levario and Ernie White, arrive at the bench with no holes in their résumés and were familiar faces in the district courtrooms.

"The criminal courts is like a family up here," Alvarez says. "You know everybody that does district work. Carter Thompson didn't practice here. He never walked up here."

 
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