Judges

Despite Seasoned Texas Judge George Powell’s Failures, He Receives a Free Pass

During a Tuesday court hearing, the local chapter of the Democratic Party sought to justify its decision in leaving Judge George Powell off the ballot, urging him to take responsibility for his application’s failure.

LIT COMMENTARY

Jan. 19, 2020

Laws In Texas previously wrote about the sanction of Judge Powell last year. You can read the article here.  Now we have this breaking news that the sanctions of 11 judges have been completely removed from the public facing website at scjc.texas.gov and without comment. This is illegal when none (zero) of these eleven sacntioned judges appealed their discipline.

Now Judge Powell was $1,000 light on his application to be on the ballot for his own seat on the bench and so his application was rightfully denied the following day.

However, this is Texas where laws are made up as you go along. In this case, despite the fact the check was signed by Powell, a seasoned judge, and it was his decision to submit the paperwork on the very last day, his legal action to request he be reinstated on the ticket has been approved by Judge Lauren Reeder, who is also seeking reelection.

Judge’s candidacy hangs in balance after Harris County Democratic Party’s alleged filing snafu

An even $1,000 stands between Judge George Powell and his re-election bid for the 351st judicial district court.

That isn’t by any fault of his own, the judge says. An election worker at the Harris County Democratic Party told him to pay an insufficient fee when he filed his candidacy for the criminal court, and the party has since dug in its heels, hindering any efforts to remedy the situation, Powell testified Tuesday in civil court.

“I think (the election worker) admits his mistake,” Powell said during an injunction hearing for the lawsuit he filed against the party. “I don’t think the party does.”

Powell is now awaiting a ruling from civil District Judge Lauren Reeder, whose decision could put him back on the ballot for the March 3, Democratic primary. Both legal parties on Tuesday largely agreed on the facts of the case, but some testimony raised bigger questions about the organization’s reasons for blocking Powell’s presence on the ticket.

The judge completed his application before the filing deadline – 6 p.m. on Dec. 9 – at the Harris County Democratic Party headquarters, according to documents shown at the hearing, and he got a letter the next day saying that his application was denied.

Lillie Schechter, party chair and a defendant named in Powell’s suit, sent the judge an email stating that he would not be able to run for office because he paid $1,500 instead of the required $2,500, and wrote his work address instead of his home address on his application.

The issue over the address is now irrelevant – Powell could write his work address under a state law that helps judges protect their personal addresses from the public in certain situations – but court documents and testimony allege that Marc Malacoff, a staff member of the party, told Powell the wrong filing fee amount even though the judge was able and prepared to pay the full $2,500.

Malacoff on Tuesday admitted to the mistake.

“I was rushing to beat the clock,” the election worker said, describing what might have led him to quote the wrong fee. “It was extremely noisy.”

Attorneys for the party meanwhile pushed Powell to take responsibility for his potentially failed candidacy. The judge applied too close to the filing deadline to fix the problem, and he should have known the rules ahead of time, the lawyers said.

Cris Feldman, an attorney representing the local Democratic party, said that while Malacoff made an error, there wasn’t a viable resolution to the mistake if the party wanted to uphold election codes.

“We’ve been transparent in this process,” he said. “We’ve got to follow the letter of the law.”

Powell had in fact paid $1,500 for his own application as well as another $2,500 designated as a loan for another potential candidate. That woman’s application wasn’t even received by the party because it was incomplete, but the check on her behalf was accepted, meaning the party cashed $4,000 from the bank account of George Powell.

Regardless of how Powell earmarked that money, the party held more than enough cash from Powell for his application to be valid, according to his attorney, Kent Schaffer.

The judge and his lawyer both said it was reasonable to assume that a trained election official could be trusted for correct information. Schaffer also alleged more nefarious intent in blocking Powell from the ballot, even if he wasn’t intentionally given the incorrect information to fill out his application.

“I’ve always assumed someone is pulling strings on this,” Schaffer said.

Feldman called the allegations “ludicrous.”

Powell was elected to his seat in 2016. He is one of 11 current and former judges in Harris County who were publicly admonished this year by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct in response to complaints that they ordered hearing officers to deny no-cost bail to indigent defendants, violating state and judicial laws and canons. That admonishment has since been retracted for unclear reasons.

If his candidacy isn’t approved, Natalia Cornelio will run unopposed. She is the director of legal affairs for Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis, according to her campaign’s Facebook page.

That website also cites her as helping to draft and finalize a settlement in a landmark misdemeanor bail reform lawsuit which changed the outlook for a bail system that was ruled to discriminate against poor defendants.

Cornelio is an “intervener” in the lawsuit, or an interested party protecting her interests. Her attorneys argued mostly in line with the Harris County Democratic Party’s lawyers, and she declined to comment after the hearing.

Reeder said she expects to make a decision by mid-morning Wednesday.

Judge to be included on March primary ballot, civil court judge rules

A civil court judge Wednesday ordered that sitting criminal district Judge George Powell be included on the March primary ballot after the Harris County Democratic Party denied his application for candidacy last month.

Party officials had to accept Powell’s application within 24 hours, and he needs to appear as a choice for voters during the election, Judge Lauren Reeder ordered.

But the ruling is technically temporary and could be subject to appeal by the party or Powell’s primary opponent, who was a third-party “intervener” in Powell’s suit against the party.

“I’m very happy that the judge granted our request for an injunction and that he gets the chance to run again,” said Kent Schaffer, Powell’s attorney. “Ultimately, it’s the voters who should decide who the candidate’s going to be, and not a select few people who feel like it’s their right.”

During a Tuesday court hearing, the local chapter of the Democratic Party sought to justify its decision in leaving Powell off the ballot, urging him to take responsibility for his application’s failure. A statement party officials issued after Wednesday’s ruling made little mention of the outcome, however, and pointed to issues with the election code.

Party leaders weren’t able to approve Powell’s candidacy because state rules prevented it, they said. The judge paid an insufficient filing fee too close to the filing deadline, meaning his application was denied and the problem couldn’t be fixed without breaking state rules, party chair Lillie Schechter testified Tuesday.

“The Harris County Democratic Party regrets the situation Judge Powell found himself in,” party officials said in a statement. “Without question, we believe all eligible candidates should have access to the ballot.”

At the heart of Tuesday’s injunction hearing was Powell’s application to run for re-election, which was rejected because he paid a $1,500 filing fee instead of the required $2,500 – something he did at the instruction of a party election worker, according to testimony.

The civil court judge ultimately ruled in line with Powell’s attorneys, saying it was reasonable for him to rely on the election worker’s instructions.

“The Court finds that Powell’s application, petition, and filing fee were timely received and accepted by the Harris County Democratic Party,” the order reads. “Nevertheless, the Harris County Democratic Party subsequently, and improperly, rejected Powell’s application based solely on the amount of the filing fee paid by Powell.”

And Reeder noted that Powell technically paid the correct fee, regardless of the party staff member’s mistake.

Powell gave enough money to the party in a stroke of good fortune — he wrote a second check to the Democratic Party on the Dec. 9 filing deadline, meant as a $2,500 loan for another potential candidate’s application. That woman’s application wasn’t even received because of insufficiencies on her form, but the party cashed both Powell’s $2,500 and $1,500 checks, meaning the organization accepted $4,000 from him, according to testimony.

Party officials said Tuesday that Powell should have known the rules and proper amounts to pay, as they’re available online and made known through open meetings about the filing process.

Attorneys for Natalia Cornelio, who is vying for Powell’s seat on the court, agreed with the Democratic Party. But Reeder ruled out of her favor as well, saying that Powell’s right to be on the ballot was most important.

“Further, the court finds that any harm to Cornelio resulting from Powell’s inclusion on the primary ballot will be her inability to run unopposed in the primary election, which is outweighed by Powell’s right to be included on the primary ballot and by the voters’ interest in electing the candidate of their choice,” the ruling reads.

The Democratic Party doesn’t plan to appeal, according to party spokeswoman Nisha Randle. Cornelio, currently the director of legal affairs for Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis, has not decided whether to challenge the order, her attorney said.

“I remain focused on why I am running and on pushing for the issues that matter in criminal courts, like promoting community centered justice, bail reform, and a commitment to reducing racial disparities in our justice system,” Cornelio said.

Powell’s lawyers hinted in Tuesday’s injunction hearing that the party might have an interest in keeping the judge from running for re-election, even though paying the incorrect amount might have been no more than a convenient mistake. Schaffer clarified afterward that he believes Ellis is pulling strings in the local Democratic Party, and wants his employee to run unopposed in the primary for the 351st state judicial district.

Ellis and Cornelio both helped draft a landmark settlement over Harris County’s misdemeanor bail system, which a federal judge said was unconstitutional and discriminated against poor defendants.

Powell was one of 11 current and former judges in the area who were admonished by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct in 2019 related to complaints that they instructed hearing officers to deny no-cost bail to indigent defendants. That admonishment has since been retracted for unknown reasons.

Randle called the claims “ludicrous,” and Cornelio’s attorney, Mynor E. Rodriguez, said he hadn’t heard those accusations. Ellis flatly denied them.

“There is a whole lot of distance between that baseless claim and reality,” he said. “There is no truth to those claims; I’ve been focused on working on issues that matter to Harris County families.”

On 17th January, 2020 George Powell retracted his Mandamus request.

Judge George Powell

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