Bad Judgment

Cruz control: Challenger Baltasar Cruz says his fellow Democrat Judge Sally Montgomery is incompetent.
Tom Jenkins

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 News editorial 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.

"I was told that if I did what he wanted, I would not get any opposition in the primary," Montgomery says, adding that she did not revisit the case in question. "Do you know the courage that took?"

Driegart says that he called Montgomery's husband on an entirely separate matter and laughed when asked about the judge's theory on how he helped manipulate the 1999 judicial poll results.

"She earned that rating on her own," he says.

Another critic Montgomery has battled has been the Texas Observer. The judge's advisors contend that the paper's calculation of Montgomery's high rate of overturned cases is flawed, contending that only a handful of them have been reversed on the merits. Even still, Montgomery has been overturned on a few embarrassing cases. In 2000, the 5th Court of Appeals ruled that she "clearly abused her discretion" by granting a new trial in a case where an attorney had asked her to recuse herself after he helped support her opponent in the Republican primary. "We do not condone such conduct and we expect it to stop," the court opined.

Last month the 5th Court of Appeals ruled that Montgomery again overreached when she overturned a decision by the Texas Workforce Commission to deny employment benefits to the paralegal of Dallas attorney Scott Palmer. The court ruled that Montgomery had no authority to substitute her judgment for that of the agency.

"This case is a perfect example of a judge who doesn't understand the law," Palmer says on Montgomery's handling of his case.

Montgomery cites her gender frequently in an effort to portray herself as an underdog gamely fighting against a conservative establishment. "What they didn't anticipate with me, at 5-foot-2 with blond hair, is that I would work as hard as I do," she says.

The judge also claims that the Morning News declined to endorse her in the Democratic primary because they're not used to a woman answering all their questions. The paper had no problem, however, endorsing Angela King in the Democratic primary for County Criminal Court No. 6, citing her "special brand of tough love."

Baltasar Cruz, an attorney in private practice, also failed to get the endorsement of the Morning News as the paper concluded that "both candidates seem driven largely by personal spite." A Harvard graduate who can recite arcane passages of Texas civil codes off the top of his head, Cruz is running an unusually nasty campaign against his fellow Democrat. "I've met only one or two lawyers in my entire career who are as incompetent as her," he says. Even the two Republican candidates are easily more qualified to serve as judge, he adds.

Cruz cites his experience in her court as the reason he decided to run against her. A litigator who has both represented and opposed insurance companies, Cruz had a bizarre run-in with attorney Charles Hayworth during a court hearing. Cruz says he had been talking to Judge Montgomery when Hayworth sidled up to him and squeezed his upper arm with all his might.

"I pulled away from him and said, 'Don't touch me, get your hands off me,'" Cruz recalls. He quickly filed a police report against Hayworth, who later died of a heart attack. No charges were ever filed.

"I don't know if he grabbed a tendon, but my arm was really hurting; I still occasionally hurt in my upper arm," Cruz says.

Montgomery sanctioned Cruz and defends her order compelling him to pay Hayworth's attorney's fees even if he were convicted. Montgomery says she never saw the man squeeze Cruz's arm and that any judge who came to a different decision would have been flat-out wrong.

"This was a clear, clear, easy decision to make," she says. "It was one of the easiest decisions to make."

If only all of them were that easy.

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