‘Insane chaos’: Some Hays County lawyers allege caustic work environment in new judge’s court
JAN 31, 2021 | REPUBLISHED BY LIT: FEB 2, 2021
As a newly elected Hays County Court-at-Law judge has been settling into her role, some attorneys say they’re concerned that her unusually defensive actions might be affecting a docket already facing pandemic-related challenges.
In her first month on the bench, County Court-at-Law No. 3 Judge Millie Thompson, a Democrat, has issued a criminal trespass warning to the judges she works with and their staffers, hired a private locksmith to change the locks at her office at the Hays County government center, and recused herself from several local attorneys’ cases.
She issued a cease and desist order, which doubled as a criminal trespass warning, in late January, instructing the judges and their staffers that “your entry into my office is forbidden.” Her decision to change the locks was atypical for a government official.
Several attorneys said Thompson’s blanket recusals could delay cases when the courts already are coping with backlogs due to the pandemic.
Thompson — who handles probate, guardianship, personal injury and misdemeanor cases — has not returned voicemails and emails seeking comment since Wednesday.
“You have created a hostile work environment by entering my chambers without my consent,” Thompson wrote to the two other County Court-at-Law judges, Robert Updegrove and Chris Johnson. “You have created a hostile work environment by lying to the coordinators you assigned me by telling them I have no authority to fire my own coordinators. … I had to order a man I just fired out of my office more than four times, and he still refused to leave. … Cease and desist your retaliation against me for winning the bench.”
Johnson and Updegrove both declined to comment on the matter, and it’s unclear how the exchanges unfolded.
Before winning the election against the Republican incumbent judge in November, Thompson worked as a civil rights attorney. Her clients included Austin activist Antonio Buehler, who was known for filming Austin police officers on Sixth Street, and men she said were wrongfully charged after the deadly Waco biker shootout. Thompson campaigned on a platform of reform and promised a more equitable criminal justice system.
Records show that Thompson has recused herself from cases involving Hays County attorneys David Glickler, Lynne Morris and Tony Fusco, as well as some cases involving the law firm of Austin attorney Brad Vinson.
“I’m stunned,” said Morris, who said she has sought an answer from Thompson as to why she recused herself but hasn’t received one. Morris said her theory is that it is because she questioned Thompson’s qualifications in election posts on Facebook. However, Morris said she also was critical of Johnson in an election, and Johnson did not recuse himself from her cases.
County Court-at-Law No. 3 was created to address a backlog of cases, but cases can’t be dealt with as quickly if the judge is not hearing the cases of multiple attorneys’ clients, Morris said.
Attorney David Sergi, who works with Fusco, said he was perplexed as to why Thompson would recuse herself from Fusco’s cases. Fusco did run against Thompson in the Democratic primary, but Sergi said it is unusual for a judge to recuse himself or herself from all attorneys who supported a different candidate.
“I think if that were the case, every small town of Texas would have to have visiting judges,” Sergi said.
He said the county can’t have the benefit of a progressive judge if the judge isn’t hearing cases from several local attorneys.
“There are some areas where I really agree with Millie on — bail reform, court-appointed attorneys,” Sergi said. “She can be a driving force to really do some good. By taking some of these actions, I think she’s hurting herself and her constituency.”
Thompson’s actions have even caught the attention of attorneys who have been unaffected by the recusals, including Chevo Pastrano, who worked with Thompson when she was an attorney on previous cases. Pastrano described Thompson’s actions as “insane chaos” in an email to several Hays County officials.
“Judge Thompson never turned her attention to learning her new staff and teaching them the new way,” wrote Pastrano, who acknowledged in his email that he supported the incumbent who lost to Thompson. “The staff was ready to love her, and she refused to receive their love. She has an idea of what her staff should be doing in her head, and when they fail to perform that mental image — that was never conveyed — she resorts to belittling, berating and attempting to fire county employees. Then she types up a criminal trespass warning.”
Vinson said he did not take issue with Thompson recusing herself from his firm’s cases.
“She’s probably just doing it out of an abundance of caution,” said Vinson, who said he has previously sought her advice on cases when they worked in the same building in Austin. “Honestly, we didn’t really think much of it. I thought it was normal, given how much we had talked about cases.”