Reprinted from the November 14, 2014 Mongoose newsletter.
Harris County family court judges-elect have announced who their Associate Judges will be. So far Judge Dean and Judges-Elect Prine and Schmude have announced their picks.
John Schmude has selected Paula Vlahakos to be the next Associate Judge of the 247th District Court. Vlahokos got her J.D. from South Texas in 1998 and was licend in 1999. She worked for Short Jenkins Kamin from 1999 until 2007 and for Short Carter Morris since 2007. This first major decision by Mr. Schmude should give us all even more confidence in his good judgment. Schmude is going to be assisted by a very experienced and smart attorney and not a political hack.
Prior to becoming an attorney, Vlahakos worked as the legislative coordinator for Service Corporation International and later as the community outreach coordinator for The Children’s Assessment Center/Harris County Children’s Protective Services. Paula has also taught at Houston Community College. Until accepting this appointment, Paula served as a member of the board of AVDA – Aid to Victims of Domestic Violence. Paula and her husband of 23 years, Frank, have three daughters.
Judge-elect Charley Prine has selected Chelsie Moerbe Ramos to be the Associate Judge of the 246th Court. Ramos is also an associate attorney for Short * Carter * Morris, L.L.P. Mrs. Ramos graduated from South Texas College of Law in 2001. Ramos is a mom and an experienced family law attorney.
Chelsie Ramos is married to former Associate Judge Rick Ramos. I have checked and Rick Ramos will not be representing clients in the 246th. It should surprise no one that I think it improper and unethical for the spouse of a judge to practice law in his wife’s court (whether the judge is elected or an appointed associate judge – more on this in detail in future issues!).
As long as flying on one lawyer’s jet or riding on his yacht does not count for more than an open invitation to ride in my two person kayak, Mrs. Ramos should turn out to be an excellent selection.
[Note: The judge’s robe and the name of the plane were added to this photograph].
In a related development, Short * Carter * Morris has sudden openings for associate attorneys with political ambitions. Please send resumes and detailed primary voting histories directly to Lindsey Short.
Click here to read a 2002 Houston Press article about Malazzo’s minor role as a referee in appointing the same attorneys (including some guy named Clevenger) over and over for juvenile defendants (basically the same appointment racket I have been writing about in CPS cases a decade later). Let’s hope that what Malazzo learned from Judge Shelton in the dank, ethically-challenged jungle of patronage that is the juvenile courts does not guide how she selects and appoints attorneys in Judge Dean’s court.
If you “Google” Ms. Malazzo, one of the first things you find is the 2006 Reprimand of Ms. Malazzo by the Texas Ethics Commission. Click here to read the full reprimand which in the end did not involve a very serious offense (but did slap her with a whopping $100 fine). The reprimand found that Malazzo used the Texas State Seal in campaign advertising even though the Election Code only allows elected officials to use the Seal in their advertising. We all may expect judicial candidates to know the law, but that rule seems unconstitutional to me and I personally would have challenged it instead of paying the $100 fine. The Ethics Commission found that Malazzo was only a little misleading in how she used the term “judge” in her advertising and concluded it was a “de minimis” violation.
Ms. Malazzo may, however, still be unclear when it is proper to use the term “Judge.” Judge Dean’s announcement of her selection of Ms. Malazzo says,”Currently, Beverly is in private practice.” I could find no indication Malazzo is working as a judge or was ever elected judge. I could only confirm she once served as a juvenile court referee and she once ran for judge but lost. Yet, this is her current listing with the State Bar of Texas. Unless “Judge” is part of her given name, I do not think she should be calling herself that (at least, before January 1).
I checked on the State Bar listings of our current Associate Judges, and none use “judge” as part of their names, even though they really are judges. Our elected judges do not do that either. We all know as attorneys that the information displayed in these State Bar listings is supplied and verified by the attorney herself.
Malazzo also calls herself “Judge” in her listing on the Texas Board of Legal Specialization website and on www.lawyer.com.
I was unable to reach Ms. Malazzo to get her explanation for her use of the label “judge.” I know I would expect a lawyer with intelligence, ethics and good judgment to be careful and respectful about using that term correctly so as to not mislead the public or even get in trouble for it. This nitpicking issue I am raising will at least be moot after January 1, 2015.
She wants to run for the judgeship of the 315th District Court, one of the county’s three juvenile courts. To do that, she needs to get 500 signatures on a petition. The way she’s going about it is causing some grumbling among local criminal attorneys.
Malazzo sent out an e-mail announcing that she’d be holding a petition drive outside the Family Law Building. The attorneys on the e-mail list, one lawyer noted, are the same attorneys who are eligible to be appointed to represent juveniles in the courts.
If Malazzo wins, she’ll be the one making those appointments; if she wins, it probably wouldn’t be a bad thing for an attorney to have his name on her petition.
That’s not all that unusual — in the gray-ethics world of the courthouse, judges get almost all their campaign cash from people who practice in front of them. Campaign contributions make absolutely no difference in how an attorney gets treated by a judge, rest assured. (We know this because judges tell us this every time we write about campaign contributions.)
Alerting potential appointees to their need to sign a petition is one thing. It’s where they were supposed to sign it that further raised eyebrows.
Malazzo supporters set up a table on the plaza outside the Family Law Building. The Texas Election Code states that potential candidates can’t collect signatures “on the grounds of a county courthouse or courthouse annex.”
Malazzo says she interprets “the grounds” to mean the Family Law Building itself. The supporters collecting signatures promised to provide a statute backing up that contention, but they never did.
A spokesman for the Secretary of State’s office said he could not find any opinion by the agency defining what “the grounds” means. You’d think the grounds would be everything but the building, but then again we’re no lawyers.
That year, Malazzo got enough petition signatures to get on the ballot but she lost in the Republican primary.
Malazzo is a long time friend of Judge Dean’s, but she is not well known to family law attorneys. I could not even find a photograph of her. Few family lawyers knew Charley Prine before he was selected by Judge Dean and he turned out to be a really good judge (with one “Flowery” exception). The family bar should have confidence in Judge Dean’s good judgment by now.
We all (including me) need to have an open mind and see how Ms. Malazzo does. I am reporting a few facts from her past that may raise question marks but the real test is how she does in office. I did reach out to Ms. Malazzo through an e-mail to Judge Dean to get the former referee’s side of the story on the issues described above, but I did not hear from her. I will be sure to call her “Judge Malazzo” when I appear in front of her early next year. One can only guess what she will be calling me.
All of the new judges deserve our support and respect until they do something to lose it.
I just hope all of the new judges focus on efficiently and fairly resolving cases and not on political patronage.