HOUSTON – When Hurricane Harvey shut down the Harris County Criminal Courthouse, felony judges were sent to the civil court house and were paired up to share the bench in the morning and afternoon shifts.
That arrangement ended in an uproar for Judge Nikita Harmon and Judge Jim Wallace.
The story both sides agree on is that Wallace asked Harmon to use the bench to get through some pleas. And when she refused, things heated up.
“She insists it’s her bench, said Kent Schaffer, a spokesperson and personal friend of Judge Jim Wallace. “He can come back later. The people can come back later because it's her bench and she was not going to yield and from what I understand he made a comment you could be arrested for impeding justice and he turned around and left.”
“That's a threat. There’s other alternatives that he could have had in his arsenal as a judge in order to deal with her fairly,” said Sadiya Evagilista, a supporter of Harmon.
Brian Wice, a legal analyst for Channel 2 and spokesperson for Judge Jim Wallace said it’s not uncommon for judges to hear each other’s pleas in order to move the docket along. Wice and Schaffer said Judge Wallace felt there was a lull in Judge Harmon’s docket and wanted to take a few minutes to get his pleas heard.
“Teamwork is as important on the bench as it is in the NFL gridiron,” Wice said. “Every day judges sit in for each other and take each other’s pleas. Why? Because it’s the people’s courtroom.”
“Obviously Judge Wallace at a minimum acted unprofessionally in this instance,” said James Wallace, interim dean of Texas Southern University. “There’s a way to treat your colleagues and to treat your colleagues with the amount of disrespect that he treated his colleagues with cannot go without some punishment.
The two sides disagree on whether this incident was a matter of race or a tension-filled day with judges looking to get through their dockets.
“She said she felt like Rosa Parks, she could not believe she said she had to sit in her seat under threat of arrest because right is right and wrong is wrong,” said Jolanda Jones, a defense attorney and HISD board member.
“She could have, in order to make things in order, to make things work, if you got five guilty pleas, let me do that for you,” Shaffer said. “Judges do that every day in the court house. If you she didn’t do it, she didn't do it, but to try and make it look like Rosa Parks that's trying to use race as an issue where there is no issue.”