A South Texas justice of the peace will find himself in another judge's courtroom this morning, likely grateful that one -- unlike his own -- contains no wooden paddles.
Cameron County Justice of the Peace Gustavo Garza is being sued by the parents of a 15-year-old girl whose stepfather was given the choice of paying a $500 fine or paddling the girl in open court for skipping school.
Daniel Zurita reluctantly used one of the two paddles in Garza's courtroom on his stepdaughter, who was 14 at the time, in April. It's the option that 98 percent of parents choose in his courtroom, Garza said.
"It is lawful," said Garza, who said he has practiced law for 26 years, including work as a prosecutor in Willacy and Cameron counties. Garza stressed that he never ordered a parent to paddle a child, he simply offered it as an option in place of a fine and a misdemeanor mark on their records.
Mark Sossi, who is representing Josie Vasquez and her parents Mary Vasquez and Zurita, said it is not much of an option.
"It's not really a choice when your choice is buying groceries or spanking your child," Sossi said. And doing it in open court in front of other parents and juveniles caused "humiliation, fear and mental anguish," according to the lawsuit.
The family wants a temporary injunction against Garza -- a hearing in district court is scheduled for Friday -- as well as damages and the court to tell Garza he does not have the authority to offer corporal punishment as an option.
The lawsuit also seeks Garza's removal from office for incompetence and official misconduct.
Garza's raised bench sits in the corner of a small courtroom with a low ceiling. He shares the building with a county tax office and constable.
Hanging on the wall within reach is a paddle that appears to be cut from a one-inch by four-inch board. Holes have been drilled into its spanking surface. An identical paddle lays across the top of Garza's bench.
Garza, who is more than a year into a four-year term, said he began offering the paddle when parents told him they had lost control of their children, but were afraid they would get in trouble for spanking them at home.
The lawsuit does not say how many times Vasquez was struck. Asked to describe a typical paddling in his courtroom, Garza said "five soft whacks."
The lawsuit alleges that Garza told Zurita he did not hit his stepdaughter hard enough. Garza said he did not recall the specific case with Vasquez, but did say some parents paddle with more gusto than others.
Garza considers it a "reasonable condition" that is within his authority to issue.
Opinions issued by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct appear to disagree.
In 2002, the commission publicly reprimanded a Montgomery County justice of the peace who had suggested a boy in his court needed a good "butt-dusting."
When the boy's foster parent said he was not allowed to spank the child, the judge provided a paddle and said he could do it with the court's permission. The commission looked at it as an order and concluded, "While judges have some discretion to order various methods of appropriate discipline for children who misbehave at school, including ordering community service, they have no authority to order a foster parent to paddle his or her foster child."
"It's not OK," said Seana Willing, the commission's executive director. "I'm not aware of any law that gives a judge the authority to administer corporal punishment or allow anybody to administer corporal punishment in his courtroom."
The commission does not reveal its investigations unless a decision is made for public punishment, Willing said.
Mary Alice Palacios, a justice of the peace in neighboring Hidalgo County for eight years, hears about 600 truancy cases per week, but has never considered corporal punishment in her courtroom.
Palacios spanked her children at home when they were young, but does not believe it has any place in a courtroom.
"I don't think that's right," Palacios said. "That's not a choice, you're practically ordering them to do it."
Walking home from the Hernandez Tortilla Factory just a few blocks from Garza's courtroom in Los Fresnos, 15-year-old Anna Mujica agreed.
"I don't think that's right for them to paddle them in the courtroom -- that's embarassing," Mujica said.
Her friend Amy Luna knows a boy who was paddled in Garza's courtroom this year. Her take was more practical.
"He's still missing school, so I guess it didn't work."
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