Published; 4 April, 2020
At LIT we’re watching the forlorn attempts by Texas Supreme Court’s Chief Justice, Nathan Hecht to convince Texans that they’ll get a fair and impartial hearing in State and/or Federal Courts and that it will be an impartial judge and decision. That’s just balderdash and he knows it. It’s why the article in this months’ Texas Bar Journal just sounds like the author was defeated before he penned it.
You’ll see below we’ve 2 Texas state judges who lost their cool on the bench and another that has repeated contempt for paying her Bar dues on time and other grievances which were actually reduced on appeal. No, Texas has a long ways to go for the judiciary to look like it’s not protecting it’s own.
The next question is ‘Has the Texas Bar taken lawyer misconduct underground?’ This month there’s more private sanctions than public – a first. We reckon the Commission for Lawyer Discipline and State Bar of Texas are feeling the heat from blogs like LIT. Their apparent answer is to go underground and become non-transparent. Yep Nathan, that’s that word you love punting around. Where is the transparency you refer to, we’re seeing less and less nowadays?
Fair, Impartial, and Independent Courts
Texas Supreme Court Justice Nathan Hecht
The president’s many denunciations of the judiciary are very troubling: accusing courts of usurping power and judges of being politically motivated despots as well as thwarting the executive at every turn, warning of judicial tyranny undermining the Constitution, and then going to the extreme of calling for the impeachment of Supreme Court Justice . . . Samuel Chase.
I refer, of course, to President Thomas Jefferson. He deplored judicial independence. Jefferson attacked the principle head-on. Others have taken a different tack, acknowledging the importance of judicial independence but decrying its absence, pointing to particular case decisions as evidence.
Upset by Supreme Court decisions holding his New Deal unconstitutional, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1937 court-packing plan did not propose to make the judiciary less independent, but rather, to expand the court with justices whose views aligned with his. Along with Jefferson and FDR, political leaders of all stripes have long criticized judicial independence both as a principle and in practice.
Some, like Jefferson, argue that the very idea is contrary to democratic principles, that judges like others in office should follow the will of the people rather than some abstract rule of law. Others, like FDR, argue that judicial decisions are independent only if they align with a political majority’s views.
The criticisms are not partisan.
They come from all sides, from the left and the right, but arrive at the same place. Whether the argument is that judges should not be independent, or that they should be independent but aren’t, the bottom line is the same: judges shouldn’t take political sides in deciding cases.
To be sure, judges are not above criticism. And judges, like all public officials, must account to the people for their stewardship of power. But judges have no constituencies. They are responsible to the people for, and only for, their adherence to the rule of law. A judge may be criticized for not following the law, but when judges follow the law, even against the popular will of the time—especially against the popular will of the time—they have done their job.
Judicial independence is not readily understood, especially in a culture as lacking in civics education as ours. Why should any government institution not be an expression of the popular will? The answer is because ours is a government of law, not of men.
The legal profession knows this and appreciates how essential to our democracy the fair and impartial administration of the law by judges is. So it falls principally to lawyers to defend judicial independence.
The American Board of Trial Advocates has been especially active, developing a “Protocol for Responding to Unfair Criticism of Judges” for use by each regional chapter.
The Texas chapter has a standing committee to ensure a strong, published response to personal attacks on judges and their integrity that threaten judicial independence.
But judges must also do their best to demonstrate the value of the independence the people have given them. Importantly, judges earn the public’s respect and trust, not just in their decision-making, but in their commitment to improving the justice system they serve.
As president of the National Conference of Chief Justices, I have the opportunity to view the workings of state courts across the country. With that perspective, I am especially proud of the Texas judiciary. There are always needed improvements, but they should not eclipse our many achievements.
Each year, legal aid providers help hundreds of thousands of Texas’ most vulnerable citizens, including veterans, victims of domestic violence, the elderly, children, tenants, and employees. For many years, Travis County District Judge Lora Livingston has worked hard to make the promise of justice a reality for the very poor. Her leadership and inspiration have brought much credit to the Texas judiciary. Her efforts invoke trust in judicial independence.
Texas specialty courts, also called problem-solving courts, adapt the law to fully achieve the goals of criminal justice while reaching rehabilitation that is restorative for the accused and positive for society. Texas has specialty courts for drug and DWI cases, as well as cases involving veterans and mental health problems.1 Kaufman County District Judge Mike Chitty is president of the Texas Association of Specialty Courts.2 For many years, Lubbock County District Judge Ruben Reyes has not only presided over a drug court but has helped train other judges and served as chair of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals Board of Directors. Texas has more veterans courts than any other state. Travis County District Judge Brad Urrutia manages a veterans treatment court that, like many others, helps those who have volunteered to protect our nation and her values regain their footing when they return home. Burnet County Justice of the Peace Roxanne Nelson, a member of the Judicial Commission on Mental Health,3 leads seminars for justices of the peace on the magistration of mentally ill defendants.
College Station Municipal Judge Ed Spillane has partnered with the Texas Lawyers’ Assistance Program4 to reach out to fellow jurists on issues of stress, burnout, compassion fatigue, substance use, and mental health. Spillane has also been a leader in Texas and a national spokesman for reforming the collection of fines and fees in traffic cases to reduce jail time for non-payment, which burdens defendants and taxpayers alike.
For many years Midland County District Judge Dean Rucker (ret.) has worked with the Supreme Court Children’s Commission5 to train judges in handling cases involving children to ensure full communication among courts handling the cases, better collaboration among the professionals involved, and the best outcomes for children and families.
The district and county judges in El Paso are working together to improve all aspects of the justice system, including court performance measurement, bail reform, and family law reforms.
Travis County District Judge Julie Kocurek not only survived a vicious assault by a criminal defendant, she used her situation to advocate courageously for legislation providing better courthouse security throughout the state. Texas judges, court staff, lawyers, litigants, witnesses, and jurors are all safer because of her. She is a hero not just to Texas judges but to all Texans.6
Though constitutional county judges are more responsible for managing Texas counties than for handling cases, their administrative work builds public confidence in the judiciary. Williamson County Judge Bill Gravell, formerly a justice of the peace, is an outstanding example. Last year, the Williamson County Commissioners Court voted to partner with Lone Star Justice Alliance in the Second Chance Community Improvement Program, providing services to emerging adults in the justice system.
The Texas Judicial Council, assisted by the Office of Court Administration, has developed the Centers of Excellence Program to train and support judges and court staff in improving the administrative performance of their courts.7 This benefits lawyers, litigants, and the public alike. These are Texas courts at their very best. The first three judges to complete this demanding program are Nueces County District Judges Missy Medary and Inna Klein, and County Court at Law II Judge Victor Villarreal in Webb County.
Villarreal also makes a tremendous contribution to civics education by conducting courtroom mock trials—like Lax Luther v. Soup R. Man—in which school students take part to learn the importance of access to justice. The inspired, age-appropriate materials are written by state Sen. Judith Zaffirini.8 Judge Roy Ferguson, of the 394th Judicial District Court, invites students to participate in jury selection in cases like State v. Jedi Luke Skywalker to learn about the importance of the jury system.9 (The district covers five counties—Brewster, Culberson, Jeff Davis, Hudspeth, and Presidio—and 20,000 square miles.) Both programs aim at improving civics education in secondary schools as advocated by retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and current Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
I have named here but a handful of the hundreds of Texas judges working hard voluntarily to improve our judiciary. They are judges of all stripes from one end of the state to the other. They have different dockets but share this commitment: to demonstrate that the Texas judiciary is worthy of the trust people must place in judicial independence. They encourage us all.
In his year-end report on the federal judiciary, Chief Justice John Roberts described the efforts of federal judges to strengthen public trust in an independent judiciary.
He concluded powerfully
I ask my judicial colleagues to continue their efforts to promote public confidence in the judiciary, both through their rulings and through civic outreach. We should celebrate our strong and independent judiciary, a key source of national unity and stability. But we should also remember that justice is not inevitable. We should reflect on our duty to judge without fear or favor, deciding each matter with humility, integrity, and dispatch. As the New Year begins, and we turn to the tasks before us, we should each resolve to do our best to maintain the public’s trust that we are faithfully discharging our solemn obligation to equal justice under law.10
Texas judges will do the same.
Disciplinary Actions — April 2020 State Bar lists ( from the State Bar of Texas)
General questions regarding attorney discipline should be directed to the Chief Disciplinary Counsel’s Office, toll-free (877) 953-5535 or (512) 453-5535. The Board of Disciplinary Appeals may be reached at (512) 475-1578. Information and copies of actual orders are available at www.txboda.org. The State Commission on Judicial Conduct may be contacted toll-free, (877) 228-5750 or (512) 463-5533. Please note that persons disciplined by the Commission on Judicial Conduct are not necessarily licensed attorneys.
On February 10, 2020, George B. Tennant Jr. [#24042016], 51, of Pearland, accepted a public reprimand. The 80th District Court of Harris County found that Tennant committed professional misconduct by violating Rule 8.04(a)(7) [violating a disciplinary judgment]. Tennant was ordered to pay $400 in attorneys’ fees and expenses.
Rest of Texas
JUDICIAL ACTIONS To read the entire public sanction, go to scjc.texas.gov
On February 7, 2020, the State Commission on Judicial Conduct issued a public warning to Navarro Campbell Cox II, judge of the 145th District Court, Nacogdoches, Nacogdoches County. Read LIT’s ARTICLE on this case.
The District 14 Grievance Committee found that in 2015, the complainant hired Ghanayem to file an involuntary relinquishment of parental rights action against the biological father of her son. In representing the complainant, Ghanayem neglected the legal matter entrusted to him by failing to file a petition for an involuntary relinquishment of parental rights until March 2017. Ghanayem failed to keep the complainant reasonably informed about the status of her matter and failed to promptly respond to reasonable requests for information.
Ghanayem engaged in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation by misrepresenting the status of the matter to the complainant and by providing the complainant with a fraudulent order and forged signature of a judge.
Ghanayem violated Rules 1.01(b)(1), 1.03(a), and 8.04(a)(3).
On December 19, 2019, Majd M. Ghanayem [#24078556], 34, of Abilene, received a 36-month fully probated suspension effective December 9, 2019. The District 14 Grievance Committee found that on November 19, 2013, the complainant hired Ghanayem to represent her father in a divorce filed in Jones County. In representing the complainant’s father, Ghanayem neglected the legal matter entrusted to him.
Ghanayem failed to keep the complainant reasonably informed about the status of her father’s divorce matter and failed to promptly comply with reasonable requests for information from the complainant about the status of her father’s divorce matter. Upon termination of representation, Ghanayem failed to surrender papers and property that the complainant was entitled to.
Ghanayem engaged in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation by submitting a fabricated email to the State Bar of Texas in his response to the complainant’s grievance.
Ghanayem violated Rules 1.01(b)(1), 1.03(a), 1.15(d), and 8.04(a)(3).
He was ordered to pay $3,500 in restitution and $8,148 in attorneys’ fees and direct expenses.
Abilene personal injury lawyer disbarred for ‘professional misconduct’
ABILENE, Texas — Majd Ghanayem, a personal injury lawyer in Abilene, was disbarred by the the State Bar of Texas.
According to the judgement filed Dec. 9, Ghanayem violated three separate Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Misconduct.
One case mentioned in this judgement was one of his former clients Katie Lynn Ashlock-Williams. Ghanayem represented her beginning in 2015 to terminate parental rights of her spouse. But something went wrong.
The bar ruled “(Ghanayem) engaged in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation.” The judgement went on to say “by providing Ashlock-Williams with a fraudulent order and forged signature of a judge.”
We did some digging and found at least three lawsuits have been filed against Ghanayem in Taylor County. They involve injury cases that were settled and the clients allegedly never received the full settlement amount. One of those lawsuits was filed by Merkel resident Saundra Boden.
“He was lying to me and stringing me along,” said Boden.
Boden hired Ghanayem after she was injured in a car accident in 2013.
Boden alleges Ghanayem forged her signature on a $17,000 settlement agreement after the insurance company paid up. She said she never saw a dime of that money.
Ghanyaem is now being ordered to pay restitution. KTXS left a message at Ghanayem’s law office to give him a chance to respond to these claims, but he never returned our call.
Ghanayem’s former partner, Burt Burnett, pleaded guilty in October to misapplication of fiduciary property.
According to court documents obtained by KTXS, Burnett did not give several of his former clients over $575,000 in settlement money.
The Texas Bar Association suspended Burnett’s license to practice law in 2017.
Burnett later relinquished his license in lieu of disciplinary action.
On December 19, 2019, Majd M. Ghanayem [#24078556], 34, of Abilene, received a 72-month fully probated suspension effective December 9, 2019. The District 14 Grievance Committee found that on September 3, 2013, the complainant hired Ghanayem for representation in her personal injury matter.
Ghanayem failed to keep the complainant reasonably informed about the status of her personal injury matter and failed to promptly respond to reasonable requests for information. Upon receiving funds in which the complainant had an interest, Ghanayem failed to promptly notify the complainant and failed to promptly deliver funds that the complainant was entitled to receive. Ghanayem violated Rules 1.03(a) and 1.14(b).
He was ordered to pay $10,669.24 in restitution, $1,672.50 in attorneys’ fees, and $300 in direct expenses.
On December 19, 2019, Majd M. Ghanayem [#24078556], 34, of Abilene, received a 72-month partially probated suspension effective December 9, 2019, with the first six months actively served and the remainder probated.
An evidentiary panel of the District 14 Grievance Committee found that on January 21, 2014, the complainant hired Ghanayem to represent her and her son in a personal injury matter.
Ghanayem failed to abide by the complainant’s decision whether to accept an offer of settlement of the complainant’s matter and settled the complainant’s case without the complainant’s knowledge or consent. Ghanayem failed to keep the complainant reasonably informed about the status of her personal injury matter and failed to respond to reasonable requests for information.
Upon receiving funds in which the complainant had an interest, Ghanayem failed to promptly notify the complainant and failed to promptly deliver funds to which the complainant was entitled.
Ghanayem engaged in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation by misrepresenting the status of the case to the complainant and by submitting a settlement release to the insurance company that contained the complainant’s forged signature.
Ghanayem violated Rules 1.02(a)(2), 1.03(a), 1.14(b), and 8.04(a)(3).
He was ordered to pay $10,000 in restitution, $2,160 in attorneys’ fees, and $300 in direct expenses.
On January 29, 2020, Patrick Cameron Murray [#24094862], 32, of Lubbock, agreed to a three-year partially probated suspension effective February 1, 2020, with the first four months actively served and the remainder probated.
An evidentiary panel of the District 16 Grievance Committee found that Murray neglected clients’ matters, failed to communicate with clients, failed to return the unearned portion of a fee, and failed to respond to grievances.
Murray violated Rules 1.01(b)(1), 1.03(a), 1.03(b), 1.15(d), and 8.04(a)(8).
He was ordered to pay $7,963 in restitution and $1,800 in attorneys’ fees and direct expenses.
On February 4, 2020, David Saenz [#17514700], 69, of McAllen, agreed to a six-month fully probated suspension effective March 1, 2020. An evidentiary panel of the District 12 Grievance Committee found that Saenz failed to supervise the conduct of his non-lawyer employee. Saenz violated Rule 5.03(a). He was ordered to pay $2,120 in attorneys’ fees and direct expenses.
On February 4, 2020, David Saenz [#17514700], 69, of McAllen, agreed to a six-month fully probated suspension effective March 1, 2020. An investigatory panel of the District 12 Grievance Committee found that Saenz failed to supervise the conduct of his non-lawyer employee. Saenz violated Rule 5.
An evidentiary panel of the District 13 Grievance Committee found that Spriggs, while representing a client in a criminal proceeding, took a position that unreasonably increased the costs or other burdens of the case or that unreasonably delayed resolution of the matter.
Spriggs engaged in conduct intended to disrupt the proceeding. Spriggs violated Rules 3.02 and 3.04(c)(5).
He was ordered to pay $2,000 in attorneys’ fees and $250 in direct expenses.
On February 6, 2020, Everto A. Villarreal [#20582200], 71, of Edinburg, agreed to an 18-month fully probated suspension effective February 14, 2020. An evidentiary panel of the District 12 Grievance Committee found that Villarreal neglected a client’s matter, failed to keep a client reasonably informed, failed to return the client’s file, and failed to respond to the grievance. Villarreal violated Rules 1.01(b)(1), 1.03(a), 1.15(d), and 8.04(a)(8).
On February 18, 2020, Marc Elliot Villarreal [#00791856], 51, of Corpus Christi, agreed to a five-year partially probated suspension effective May 14, 2020, with the first 12 months actively served and the remainder probated.
An evidentiary panel of the District 11 Grievance Committee found that Villarreal failed to hold funds related to a representation separate from his own property and failed to deliver funds to parties entitled to receive the funds promptly. Villarreal violated Rules 1.14(a) and 1.14(b).
He agreed to pay $10,000 in attorneys’ fees and direct expenses.
On February 6, 2020, Javier Aguirre [#24044732], 37, of Brownsville, accepted a public reprimand. An evidentiary panel of the District 12 Grievance Committee found that Aguirre failed to supervise the conduct of his non-lawyer employee. Aguirre violated Rule 5.03(a). He agreed to pay $1,000 in attorneys’ fees and direct expenses.
An evidentiary panel of the District 17 Grievance Committee found that Contreras represented a client in a matter and thereafter represented another person in a matter adverse to the former client when it was the same or a substantially related matter.
Contreras violated Rules 1.06(b)(2) and 1.09. He agreed to pay $800 in attorneys’ fees and direct expenses.