Dan Gus | Red Oak | Lawyer, Walker Sewell
1) Given that the 40th District Court is overseeing the Adult Probation Department, are there any specific to address the recent controversies surrounding the alleged sexual and financial abuse by the halfway house director that probation officials assigned clients to?
Given the serious nature of the allegations regarding Kevin’s House, there is a possibility that litigation arising from those allegations may be filed in the 40th District Court. As with other high profile controversies that may result in litigation in the 40th District Court, I need to refrain from opining on such matters in order to protect the court from allegations that its neutrality is compromised. Accordingly, while others are free to weigh in on the controversy in the public sphere, I will not offer opinions or substantive comments regarding the matter.
2) Given that a lawyer — James Leonard — was given 10 years probation for molesting two girls only to flee the country, what steps can be given to better monitor and track offenders who Adult Probation officials are responsible for?
The James Leonard case represents a failure of the criminal justice system. It shows that long experience in the criminal justice system does not always translate into sound judgment and good results. Fortunately, the Leonard case is a rarity in that most probationers do not flee the country in order to evade responsibility for their crimes.
In evaluating the Adult Probation program in Ellis County, I start with the premise that probation is intended to help people assume a productive role in society without the necessity of jail time. This reduces the burden on taxpayers and gives certain offenders an opportunity to demonstrate real commitment to turning away from criminal behavior. Unfortunately, between 2006 and now, the district court has had to grant more than 1,000 motions to revoke probation. While I believe that a person who violates the terms of his or her probation should not continue to enjoy the benefits of probation, I think the court’s exercise of active oversight can help prevent cases from deteriorating to the point of probation revocation. Accordingly, I will not be content just to let someone else worry about the fate of defendants and convicts placed on probation. I will require regular accounting from Adult Probation regarding every probationer’s compliance with the terms of his or her probation. Because people on probation often struggle with exercising personal responsibility, more active oversight by the court can encourage probationers to learn to exercise greater personal responsibility, so that they do not represent a threat to their fellow citizens and become a burden on taxpayers. As district judge, I will provide the more active oversight that Adult Probation requires.
3) Can you give three immediate changes that you plan to seek once you are sworn in as the new district judge?
First, I will devote more careful attention to the civil side of the court’s docket. While the 40th District Court performs at an average level in managing its criminal docket according to data provided by the Texas Office of Court Administration, the county currently ranks almost dead last among the 254 counties in Texas in the management of the civil docket.
A key measure of how effectively a district court is managing civil cases is the length of time it takes a court to dispose of cases on its docket. From 2006 through the present, state averages show that only 20% of civil cases take more than 18 months to reach a conclusion. However, more than 75% of the civil cases in Ellis County district courts took more than 18 months to reach a conclusion. Only one out of Texas’ 254 counties performed worse in this statistical category during that time period. The delays in obtaining civil justice in Ellis County mean that litigants experience greater litigation costs and have to endure unresolved damage to their economic interests while awaiting relief from the courts.
In addition to the lengthy delays on the civil docket, the 40th District Court has a mixed record before the Court of Appeals with respect to civil cases. From the 1990s through the present, approximately half of the civil cases appealed to the Court of Appeals have been reversed. This imposes additional costs on litigants and the taxpayers because many cases have to be remanded to the district court in order to get it right the second time around.
I am the candidate with the most experience in managing complex civil litigation. Drawing on that experience, I will implement measures to expedite the handling of civil cases on the court’s docket. This will also allow the court to better focus the necessary attention on criminal matters. I will require early status conferences in civil cases to map out a schedule for bringing a case to trial within less than a year of filing. I will require client attendance at those status conferences to make sure that they understand the process and what will be expected of them to help resolve their cases in a timely manner. I will use these conferences to determine which cases have a significant likelihood of settlement, and I will encourage early mediation or settlement discussions to resolve such cases as quickly as possible in order to minimize congestion on the court’s docket and to minimize the expense to clients. I will not take a pass on granting summary judgment motions when the law is clearly in favor of one side and there is no genuine issue of fact that requires a jury trial. I will have strict standards for granting motions to continue and postpone trials so that litigants do not suffer unreasonable delay in seeking the justice to which they are entitled.
The bottom line is that by the conclusion of my first term as district judge, Ellis County will no longer be at the bottom of the list when it comes to the timely administration of civil justice.
Second, as indicated above, I will be more active in requiring accountability from Adult Probation to ensure that probationers are abiding by the terms of their probation. With more active oversight from the court, we can help more probationers be successful in completing the terms of their probation. We can also be swifter in enforcing the terms of probation so that individuals who make no effort to comply with the terms of probation and represent a threat of recidivism will not endanger others.
Third, I have heard several Ellis County residents complain that appearing for jury duty frequently involves a lengthy presentation by the district court during the voir dire process. I will respect the value of prospective jurors’ time by keeping my comments to a minimum during voir dire, and I will allow the attorneys presenting cases to conduct voir dire according to strict time limits so that prospective jurors do not spend longer than is absolutely necessary sitting through jury selection.
4) What will be in store for victims, clients, lawyers, taxpayers for the next four years in the 40th District Court?
When I am elected judge of the 40th District Court, people can expect that the 40th District Court will perform at a high level of excellence. Clients can expect that their lawyers will perform at a higher level because I will require excellence from the lawyers that practice in the 40th District Court. Although I will be firm with lawyers and litigants, I will demonstrate the utmost civility and respect to everyone in the 40th District Court. Likewise, I will expect civility and respect from everyone that has business before the court. People can expect that I will manage the court efficiently and with careful attention to detail. I will work hard to ensure that the law is applied fairly and evenhandedly in both criminal and civil cases. There will be no favoritism demonstrated to any particular parties or factions. I will judge each case according to its legal merits and I will respect the factual findings made by juries. In criminal cases, the state will be held to its burden of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. But once the state has met that burden, victims and criminals alike should be certain that punishment will be certain and swift. Taxpayers can be assured that I will work diligently to manage the court and the matters before it as efficiently as possible in order to be a wise steward of the taxpayer dollars that fund the court’s operations. Most importantly, I will approach my responsibilities with a grateful appreciation that I will have been entrusted to serve my fellow citizens in this important job. I will remember that despite the power of the office, I am but a servant of the public.