Holding Judges accountable for breaking the law
by Hani Mirza, North Texas Regional Legal Director
Late Tuesday night, the White Settlement City Council met to discuss the ongoing state and federal law violations occurring in the municipal court under Judge Gary Ritchie. For many months, along with the Texas Fair Defense Project, I have observed egregious violations of the law that have targeted White Settlement’s working class communities.
Despite proactively reaching out to the city to try and address these issues, leaders in White Settlement have continued to ignore our requests to meet. Last night, along with other community members, I was able to present to the Council why they needed to hold Judge Ritchie accountable and reiterated our call to join TCRP and TFDP in our efforts to resolve these issues.
“My name is Hani Mirza. I am the North Texas Regional Legal Director for the Texas Civil Rights Project. I have observed the White Settlement Municipal Court docket during the months of October 2017, November 2017, and February 2018. During my first observation, I informed Judge Gary Ritchie of my name and the organization I work for. During my second observation, Judge Ritchie asked for my business card, and I provided one to him. On January 9, 2018, I, along with my colleagues, sent him and this city council a letter describing his violations of Texas and Federal law as well as the Texas Judicial Code of Conduct.
During my court observations in October and November of last year, Judge Ritchie verbally gave none of the admonishments listed in Article 26.13(a) of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure despite the fact that he accepted guilty and no contest pleas from defendants throughout the dockets. Judge Ritchie also did not make an effort to ensure that defendants were aware of the consequences of their guilty or no contest pleas as required by Article 26.13(d) of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure.
The Judge was aggressive and combative with some of the defendants, periodically raising his voice and making off-hand comments. Additionally, Judge Ritchie did not inquire about any defendant’s ability to pay a fine and only offered community service to a few of the defendants who specifically requested community service.
I observed Judge Ritchie speak to a defendant who mentioned that he was recently released from prison. The defendant also mentioned he recently had four surgeries. Judge Ritchie gave him 90 days to pay his fine and said, “try your best shot.”
I observed Judge Ritchie tell a defendant that he had active warrants out for his arrest. Judge Ritchie then told the defendant to pay one of his fines that day to stay out of jail.
I observed Judge Ritchie deny a defendant’s request for community service without inquiring into his ability to pay and told the defendant that the fines were not going away. Judge Ritchie gave the defendant 90 days to pay the fines.
I observed Judge Ritchie have a defendant arrested in the courtroom. The defendant stated that he could not pay his fines at that moment and would like an extension because he had just obtained a job. Judge Ritchie did not inquire about the defendant’s ability to pay the fines owed during the hearing or prior to the arrest.
I also spoke to defendants in the waiting room:
One woman told me that the Judge who presided over her the last time she was at the White Settlement Municipal Court did not explain the consequences of her plea of “no contest.”
A man told me he was immediately arrested the last time he walked into the White Settlement Municipal Court. He mentioned that he did not get to say a word when he entered the courtroom on the day of his arrest.
I also observed court this month on February 10th. While Judge Ritchie’s behavior was different—he was generally polite to the individuals in the court, he asked people whether they had the ability to pay their fines and fees, and he made community service available to satisfy fines and fees—there were still violations that impacted the civil rights of defendants in the court. Judge Ritchie still repeatedly failed to give the admonishments listed in Article 26.13(a) of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure. Judge Ritchie still repeatedly failed to make an effort to ensure that defendants were aware of the consequences of their guilty or no contest pleas as required by Article 26.13(d) of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure.
Even though there were improvements, it remains to be seen whether the improvements demonstrated by Judge Ritchie on February 10th are permanent. We encourage this city council to hold Judge Ritchie accountable for repeatedly breaking the law. We also encourage this city council to meet with advocates from the Texas Fair Defense Project and Texas Civil Rights Project and the people you serve—including those who have suffered from crippling debt, sometimes for years, because of Judge Ritchie—to discuss how we can all ensure that Judge Ritchie and the municipal court do not further violate people’s rights in the future.”