Bully on the Bench

When big-city lawyers appear in the courtroom of Judge Gene Knize, they better be prepared to duck and cover

He also has unusual ideas about property rights. In a lawsuit concerning a feud between two former business partners, Knize ordered a local organic farmer not to spread manure within 500 feet of his neighbor's property because it stank, a contention that wasn't part of the lawsuit.

Another man embroiled in a feud collapsed and died on the courthouse steps in 1999. His wife blamed the stress on Knize's rulings regarding their property. Knize had ordered the man to remove his fence so the neighbor could drive on his property rather than remove her tree.

The populace keeps electing him anyway. Why not? The editor of the county's largest local paper, the Waxahachie Daily Light, is an unabashed advocate. Most voters never see the inside of his courtroom and know little about the law. He's been endorsed by District Attorney Joe Grubbs, Ellis County Sheriff Ray Stewart, U.S. Congressman Joe Barton and former 10th Court of Appeals Chief Justice Rex Davis. In a Texas Lawyer survey of attorneys practicing in Ellis County, Knize was named "Best Judge."

Judge Gene Knize rules his courtroom like a fiefdom.
courtesy of The Ellis County Press
Judge Gene Knize rules his courtroom like a fiefdom.
Defense attorney David Finn refused to let Judge Knize bully him and posted the transcript of jury selection on his blog.
Mark Graham
Defense attorney David Finn refused to let Judge Knize bully him and posted the transcript of jury selection on his blog.

But Knize's rulings galvanized opposition last year when he drew his first opponent in the Republican primary.

Knize declined a request for an interview, saying he was unable to comment on pending cases. He also declined to talk about his policies. But he's left a long paper trial, and his attitude toward jurisprudence, especially when someone's freedom is at stake, can be determined by looking at a handful of cases where judges of higher courts have rebuked him.

In 1994, James and Regina Kozacki were indicted for engaging in organized criminal activity. They stewed in jail on $75,000 bail because Knize refused to let their attorneys appear for a bond reduction hearing unless they agreed to represent the Kozackis through the entire criminal proceedings. This wasn't required by law; it was just one of Knize's arbitrary rules.

After denying a second motion to hear their request for a bond reduction, Knize told the Kozackis to "take it to Waco."

In an unusual twist, Knize presented oral arguments to the Court of Appeals on his own behalf, saying that his rule was designed to prohibit defendants from "piece-mealing" their legal representation to "thwart the ability of the court to expeditiously manage its docket and administer justice."

In other words, it was more convenient for Knize.

The appellate court slapped Knize down, saying the court had no option once a motion for a hearing to reduce bail was properly filed and presented. The effect of his "absolute rule" would be to deny the defendants their constitutional right to choose counsel, a violation of the 6th Amendment.

But local attorneys say Knize still requires them to represent indigent clients throughout the criminal proceedings if they receive appointments by the court. Why? Because he can.

One of Knize's fundamental beliefs is that plea bargains are good, jury trials are bad. Not only do trials clog up his courtroom, they are expensive. And jurors, well, they are always getting things wrong.

The case of Nathan Kniatt is quintessential Knize.

On June 10, 2001, Nathan Kniatt, 18, was searched by Ellis County police without a warrant and arrested when they found methamphetamine. He bonded out of jail about a week later.

Two months later, Kniatt was indicted for possession of less than a gram of methamphetamine. In a pretrial hearing in December 2001, Kniatt's lawyer Ted Redington and Assistant District Attorney Patrick Wilson told Knize that Kniatt had agreed to a plea bargain but had changed his mind after talking to his father and now wanted a jury trial.

"As I understand from the attorneys," Knize said, "they thought they had a plea agreement. In fact they did have a plea agreement and today the defendant has reneged on that...I've also been informed he wants to fire his lawyer. All that's OK with me...Defendant's bond is revoked. He's going to jail pending trial. Have a seat over there, sir. We'll set your trial when we get around to it."

Kniatt would later testify that he had not agreed to the plea. He claimed prosecutor Wilson had "threatened" him "that if he didn't take the plea bargain on that day, that they wouldn't offer it again and they would give him the maximum sentence." Nathan's father Paul Kniatt testified that immediately before the December hearing he heard Redington warn his son that if he rejected the deal "the judge was going to put him in jail" and that his only option was an "arguable" motion to suppress the evidence because police had no warrant.

But the threat of sitting in jail for "who knows how long" prompted Nathan Kniatt to take the plea four days later. In court, Kniatt said that he was making the plea voluntarily and received three years of community supervision, a fine of $3,000 and deferred adjudication.

Two years later the district attorney's office filed a motion to revoke Kniatt's deferred adjudication for allegedly violating the supervision order, and he was re-arrested. Knize found him guilty of the original charge and ordered him jailed for 200 days.

Kniatt filed a writ of habeas corpus to get out of jail, appealed his conviction and tried to get Knize recused from the case. This led to a hearing in which Knize refused to step down and admitted that he had "sanctioned" Kniatt by revoking his first bond because of his decision to renege on the plea bargain and replace his counsel.

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