Bully on the Bench

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

"Waco" would later rule that Kniatt's plea agreement was involuntarily coerced by Knize's threat of jail and that his revocation of bond was unlawful because bonds are used to ensure that defendants appear in court, not as punishment. That court reversed Kniatt's conviction and ordered a new trial. If you read between the lines, the appellate justices seem to be asking Grubbs and Knize, "What the hell are you doing down there in Waxahachie?"

After various appeals up and down the chain, the case now resides in Waco. In oral arguments before that court, counsel for the state admitted that what Knize had done was illegal.

"What Judge Knize was running was assembly-line justice," says Denton lawyer Richard Gladden, who now represents Kniatt. "If you don't plead guilty, he'll throw you in jail. I'm astonished that the voters of Ellis County keep electing him."

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.

Last year, Knize drew his first opponent in the Republican primary: Dan Altman, who practices law in Dallas.

"I had a case in his court six months before the election, and it wasn't what I expected in decorum from a judge," Altman says. The civil case involved a widow who owned a building that had fallen into disrepair after her husband died. Altman produced case law that indicated the woman had the right to do what she wanted with her building as long as she wasn't violating city codes.

"If it's not the law the way I saw it is," Knize told Altman, "it should be."

"He went out of his way saying that he didn't find my client credible or telling the truth," Altman says, "which makes it unappealable. His attitude was contemptuous. It was obvious he wasn't listening to my client."

After talking to other lawyers and hearing their tales about Knize, the mild-mannered Altman decided the judge didn't deserve to win without a challenge.

"A lot of people who supported me had been on jury panels and felt he was condescending and wasted their time," Altman says. "He'll often get up in front of the jury and go on for an hour. He's not someone who doesn't know criminal law. He uses it to run the court the way he wants to and to favor the prosecution."

Knize touted his statistics: "Despite an almost 40 percent increase in the number of cases filed in the last five years, there is no backlog in the 40th District Court." He boasted of his 35 years of service as district attorney and judge and derided Altman as a "personal injury and criminal defense attorney." Signs supporting Knize sprouted in law firms' windows.

At a civic luncheon, Knize described why plea bargains were a necessity. "You want to know why you can't live without plea bargaining?" Knize said, as reported by Matt Cook in the Ennis Daily News. "Because you can't afford it. You don't want to pay for jury members, which has gone up to $40 a day." In addition, those who plead are better about paying their fines; fines levied after conviction by a jury trial are rarely paid, he said. (Most inmates don't have jobs to pay fines.)

Without plea bargains, Knize argued, the truth wouldn't come out. "We think in our minds that a trial will get to the truth," Knize said. "I use the O.J. Simpson trial as a notorious case. Anyone who had an opinion going in had the same opinion going out. It didn't change."

Then the election turned nasty. On one side was the Waxahachie Daily Light supporting Knize; in Altman's corner was the Ellis County Press and a feisty 26-year-old named Joey Dauben, a former reporter for the Press who started a blog called the Ellis County Observer. Dauben went after both Grubbs and Knize, accusing them of cronyism, violations of people's rights and, in one case, sending an innocent man to prison.

"I'm so sick and tired of this corruption I'm going to law school so I can become a judge in Ellis County," Dauben says. He's running for a Waxahachie city council seat.

Marshall Evans, a real estate investor and past chair of a local group called Taxpayers Alliance for Good Government, worked hard for Altman's campaign.

"During the election, [Knize] called around to attorneys and pressured them to put campaign signs in their windows," Evans claims. "You have all these establishment types in town, and they won't cross him. You cannot get justice in his court if you show up with a big-city attorney. There are people who have said they'll file a grievance with the folks in Austin, and he says, 'Fine, your client will spend that time in jail.' But Ellis County is growing, and people aren't going to accept that anymore."

The Daily Light dug up the fact that Altman's law license had twice been briefly suspended: once for a month in 1996 because he failed to pay a $10 fine assessed after he was nine days late paying his occupational license fee.

The other suspension occurred when he submitted his required continuing education paperwork online before the deadline but it wasn't received. That led to an administrative suspension for nine days. Altman told the editor of the newspaper that they were "technical errors" that he rectified as soon as he learned about them. The Daily Light ran those two words in a second-coming-of-Jesus-size headline and blasted Altman for his dereliction of duty.

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