By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
"Several AG employees told me they felt uncomfortable because the people at the regional office were asking them for negative information about me and some of the other district judges," Cherry recalls. "I thought it was bizarre behavior from a government agency."
On February 1, supervisors within the division had begun asking staff attorneys if they'd ever heard the two judges make derogatory comments about the office. One assistant attorney general, who requested anonymity, recalls telling supervisors about an occasion when Hanschen had derided the office. (The judge has referred to supervising attorneys within the division as "black-booted government thugs" and "shits." Hanschen admits that he can be "quite blunt at times.")
Most of the attorneys who were asked to submit complaints against Hanschen and Cherry assumed their bosses were planning to hold a meeting with the judges. But later e-mails from James Jones, a senior regional attorney supervising the Dallas Child Support Division, suggested the attorney general's office might be planning to file a complaint against these judges with the State Commission on Judicial Conduct.
In a February 4 e-mail, Jones wrote, "I want to thank everyone who responded to my request concerning Judge Hanschen and Judge Cherry. I will respond individually to everyone who submitted an incident...[A certain assistant attorney general] will then prepare an affidavit for you to sign...We want to expedite this in an effort to get all the affidavits to Austin by Thursday. We need your responses to my individual e-mails ASAP."
To some staffers, this was a red flag. "When I hear affidavit and Austin, I think you're trying to file a judicial misconduct complaint on someone," says one assistant attorney general. "Filing a judicial misconduct charge against a judge if they haven't done anything—you'd be blackballed. If you get fired, where you gonna go?"
Many of the division attorneys in Dallas who were contacted agreed to sign affidavits, but several refused. On February 7, Jones sent this e-mail: "Some of you have indicated your concern as to what will happen if a complaint is filed with the SCJC, and that it will be uncomfortable and unpleasant appearing in the 254th Family District Court after Judge Hanschen is aware of our complaint...We must protect our AAGs and a motion to recuse is an absolute necessity." A recusal would mean an attempt to have Hanschen and Cherry removed from thousands of cases. "Again, I appreciate very much the courage it took for each of you to step forward," Jones concluded.
On February 8, an assistant attorney general (who declined to speak with the Observer) refused to complain about the judges. "At this time," he wrote in a group e-mail, "I do not want to participate in any activity regarding Judge Hanschen except regular court matters."
Jones replied: "Detail for me why you feel you have the right to disregard Article 8.03b of the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct." (The ethics rule requires lawyers to report instances of judicial misconduct.)
But the assistant countered: "I took your initial request of us to mean that you were interested in things that Judge Hanschen and Judge Cherry have done which we felt were inappropriate. This has now escalated to the point where you wish me to claim professional misconduct against a district judge. If I am to risk myself, and my reputation, I certainly want to make sure I have the grounds to do so." Although the attorney wrote that he did not agree with some of Hanschen's "methods or motives," he felt they "did not raise a substantial question as to the judge's fitness for office."
Jones declined to comment for this story, referring all questions to the attorney general's press office. Strickland, the communications director, summarized the office's position in a written statement. "Attorneys in our Dallas-area offices expressed serious concerns about certain judges' courtroom conduct and perceived bias against the Child Support Division and the child support collection process," he wrote. "Because that conduct posed a potential threat to the children who depend upon this office for child support, more information was sought about certain judges' alleged misconduct. The objective was an informal gathering of voluntary factual statements from concerned staff attorneys."
But the relentless manner in which superiors went about gathering these affidavits raises questions about how voluntary they truly are.
Strickland even acknowledges that staff attorneys have raised concerns about the statement collection process and said the division is conducting a review. As for potential complaints against the judges, he says the jury's still out. "No final decision has yet been made as to whether the underlying complaints warrant filing a complaint with the Commission on Judicial Conduct."
To Antonio, who is now 30, the legal and political clashes between two governmental bodies are meaningless. The important thing for him is to somehow sort out what to do about his broken family and get on with his life. He wants the lawsuits to be over, but with the recent Court of Appeals decision and the fact that settling his divorce would mean accepting legal paternity for all three children, there's no end in sight.