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Thad Heartfield, chief judge of the Eastern District of Texas, has a serious explanation for his recent showing on the most dreaded statistical report for federal trial judges: He led his district in motions pending longer than six months because of a natural disaster. Most years, Heartfield’s numbers have not been out of the ordinary when compared to other judges on Texas Lawyer’s annual Slowpoke Report, which details the civil cases pending more than three years and motions pending more than six months on the dockets of the state’s 52 U.S. district judges. The numbers on this year’s Slowpoke Report are as of Sept. 30, 2005. [ See related chart below.] Each year, every federal trial judge in Texas must file a report with the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that discloses his or her pending motions and cases. The Civil Justice Reform Act of 1990 mandates the reports. The Eastern District, which has 11 active and senior U.S. district judges, is known for an efficient docket that is unburdened by a heavy load of criminal cases. But Hurricane Rita, Heartfield says, had a major impact on his 2005 numbers, which reveal that he had 15 motions pending for more than six months. On Sept. 23, 2005, Hurricane Rita hit Beaumont, where Heartfield’s court is based, just days before the reporting period ended. “I literally got caught by Rita,” Heartfield says, adding that he usually has no motions pending longer than six months. The 15 he did have pending for more than six months were prisoner habeas motions, which were completed and ready to file, but they did not make it to the clerk’s office before court personnel evacuated the building, Heartfield says. Court staff grabbed what they could, covered everything else with plastic and headed for dry land before Rita hit the Texas coast. “It’s kind of like, I don’t know if we should grab the Holy Grail or the [computer] server first, but we’re going to get one of them,” Heartfield says of the hurried departure from the courthouse. “All of our information was totally saved.” But Heartfield’s 15 completed habeas motions sat in a box for weeks, waiting to be taken to the district clerk’s office, until the hurricane-damaged Jack Brooks Federal Building was cleaned up and reopened, Heartfield says. Several of the courtrooms in the building suffered water damage, he says. “The reason we had such damage is we were in the process of repairing the roof of the building. We were wide open,” Heartfield says. “And all of the courts were severely damaged except my own.” Heartfield, along with fellow U.S. District Judges Ron Clark and Marcia Crone of Beaumont, relocated their courts to Lufkin until the courthouse was repaired. Heartfield had one case pending for more than three years; Clark and Crone had no motions pending for more than six months and no cases pending for more than three years, according to the Slowpoke Report. “Everybody’s back in the courthouse,” Heartfield says. “And we’re up and running and probably doing better than we did before.” Judge Richard A. Schell had seven motions pending more that six months and six civil cases pending for more than three years. For Schell, it was an improvement from the 2004 Slowpoke Report, which showed him with 15 motions pending for more than six months and nine cases pending for more than three years. Part of Schell’s backlog in 2004 was due to his docket of complicated civil cases that he took with him when he transferred his court from Beaumont to Sherman two years earlier. Schell says he believes he has one or two of those Beaumont cases on his docket and that some of the older motions may be related to habeas cases. “And some are just civil cases that take awhile,” Schell says. Judge T. John Ward had seven motions pending for more than six months and eight cases pending for more than three years. Ward, who is based in Marshall, was out of the office last week and could not be reached for comment. Northern and Southern Districts The surest recipe for an efficient docket is a full complement of judges. In the Northern District of Texas, 15 active and senior judges let few if any cases or motions gather dust. In the Northern District, all of the active judge positions are filled and two senior judges are taking on full caseloads, says Chief Judge Joe Fish. “And that’s more than we’ve had since I’ve been on the court,” Fish says, who became a federal judge in 1983. On average, judges in the district had just one motion pending for more than six months and one civil case pending for more than three years. Many of them had none pending. “Our judges have always been hard-working,” Fish says. Lucky for them, the judges’ dockets aren’t clogged with complicated cases such as those involving the savings-and-loan scandal of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Fish believes that, for whatever reason, the judges have fewer criminal case filings on their dockets when compared to a decade ago. The dockets in the Southern District of Texas � which has 15 active and senior judges � are in much the same shape as those in the Northern District with two exceptions. According to the Slowpoke Report, U.S. District Judge Melinda Harmon of Houston had 75 cases pending for more than three years, more than any U.S. district judge in the state. Most of those pending cases are civil suits filed against the corporate officers of the failed Enron Corp. Harmon did not return a telephone call seeking comment before presstime on Dec. 29. “I think an asterisk has to be put by her name. It’s due to Enron,” says Roger Greenberg, a partner in Houston’s Schwartz, Junell, Greenberg & Oathout who’s the lead attorney in Mark Newby, et al. v. Enron Corp., et al., a securities suit brought by shareholders against Enron. “It’s the largest class-action securities case in the history of this country,” Greenberg says of the multidistrict litigation. Greenberg says Harmon has handled the multidistrict litigation well. “As a general proposition she’s very efficient. I don’t know of another judge that can take this caseload and do what she’s doing,” Greenberg says. U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes had 25 motions pending for more than six months � more than any other federal trial judge in Texas. Hughes, through a staff member, says he’s fine with his numbers on the Slowpoke Report; he declines an interview request. In 2003, the report showed that Hughes had 60 motions pending for more than six months, and in 2004, it showed he had 17 motions pending for more than six months. Last year, Hughes said most of those motions were tied to two civil cases involving regulatory agencies. Kent Schaffer, a partner in Houston’s Bires & Schaffer, says it does take time for Hughes to resolve some motions. In September 2005, Hughes overturned a bribery conviction involving one of Schaffer’s clients, Yank Barry. Barry, owner of Vitapro, a company that sold a soy-based meat alternative purchased by the Texas Department of Correction and fed to inmates, waited three years for Hughes to rule on the motion to overturn the conviction. A year of that time was spent waiting on a court reporter to transcribe the record, Schaffer says. “It seems as if the judiciary grades their own papers on how quick they move their docket and how quick they can take care of motions, when they should be worrying about how correct their rulings are,” Schaffer says. “Judge Hughes considers all of the facts, and then writes a well-reasoned, often lengthy opinion explaining his opinion,” Schaffer says. “And that’s what we should want in a judge. If you’re seeking justice, what do you want, a swift opinion or a just opinion?” The Western District Five-hundred-fifty miles of lonely Texas highway separate San Antonio and El Paso, yet both cities sit within the Western District of Texas, which has 16 active and senior judges. Most of the cases in San Antonio are civil, while El Paso has one of the busiest federal criminal dockets in the nation � including many drug and immigration cases � because of its proximity to the U.S.-Mexico border. On average, judges in the Western District had one motion pending on each of their dockets for more than six months. The judges, on average, also had less than two civil cases pending on their dockets for more than three years. “It’s a good bunch, and we’re all working hard,” says U.S. District Judge Xavier Rodriguez of San Antonio, who recently completed his second year on the federal bench. In 2004, Rodriguez had 22 motions pending for more than six months and six civil cases pending more than three years. However, in 2005, Rodriquez had no motions pending for more than six months and four civil cases pending for more than three years. Those four cases are complicated and include one that has been stayed because of bankruptcy proceedings, he says. In El Paso, the city finally has enough federal judges to handle its busy criminal docket. Two years ago, Congress approved two more full-time judges for the region; now the El Paso division has a total of four U.S. district judges. The four El Paso judges had either one or zero motions pending for more than six months and civil cases pending for more than three years. More judges, and collegial ones at that, make life easier, says U.S District Judge Frank Montalvo of El Paso. A noncombative federal bar also helps, he says. “At the end of the week you’re very tired,” Montalvo says. “But you’re not stressed out.”
The Slowpoke Report: By the Numbers U.S. District Judges in Texas � Motions Pending More Than Six Months � Civil Cases Pending More Than Three Years Northern District Jane J. Boyle � 3 � 2 Jerry L. Buchmeyer � 0 � 1 Sam R. Cummings � 0 � 0 A. Joe Fish � 0 � 0 Sidney Fitzwater � 1 � 3 David Godbey � 1 � 0 James E. Kinkeade � 0 � 0 Sam A. Lindsay � 0 � 2 Barbara M.G. Lynn � 0 � 3 Robert B. Maloney � 5 � 2 John H. McBryde � 0 � 0 Terry R. Means � 5 � 2 Mary Lou Robinson � 0 � 0 Barefoot Sanders � 1 � 0 Jorge A. Solis � 1 � 2 Total � 17 � 17 Southern District Micaela Alvarez � 3 � 2 Nancy F. Atlas � 0 � 1 Randy Crane � 4 � 1 Keith P. Ellison � 0 � 0 Vanessa D. Gilmore � 0 � 4 Andrew S. Hanen � 2 � 1 Melinda Harmon � 1 � 75 Hayden W. Head Jr. � 8 � 0 Ricardo H. Hinojosa � 1 � 2 David Hittner � 0 � 0 Kenneth M. Hoyt � 0 � 1 Lynn N. Hughes � 25 � 5 Janis Graham Jack � 0 � 0 George P. Kazan � 0 � 2 Samuel B. Ken � t � 22 Simeon T. Lake III � 0 � 0 John D. Rainey � 4 � 9 Lee H. Rosenthal � 0 � 3 Hilda G. Tagle � 2 � 1 Ewing Werlein Jr. � 0 � 2 Harry Lee Hudspeth � 0 � 8 William Wayne Justice � 4 � 0 Total � 56 � 119 Eastern District Paul N. Brown � 0 � 0 Ron Clark � 0 � 0 Marcia A. Crone � 0 � 0 Leonard E. Davis � 1 � 3 David Folsom � 0 � 4 Thad Heartfield � 15 � 1 William Wayne Justice � 0 � 0 Richard A. Schell � 7 � 6 Michael H. Schneider Sr. � 0 � 0 William M. Steger � 0 � 0 T. John Ward � 7 � 8 Total � 30 � 22 Western District Fred Biery � 2 � 4 David Briones � 0 � 1 Kathleen Cardone � 0 � 0 W. Royal Furgeson Jr. � 4 � 4 Orlando L. Garcia � 0 � 1 Harry Lee Hudspeth � 0 � 1 Robert A. Junell � 0 � 2 William Wayne Justice � 1 � 3 Alia M. Ludlum � 0 � 0 Philip R. Martinez � 0 � 0 Frank Montalvo � 1 � 1 James R. Nowlin � 0 � 0 Xavier Rodriguez � 0 � 4 Walter S. Smith � 3 � 2 Sam Sparks � 0 � 4 Lee Yeakel � 0 � 0 Total � 11 � 27 Note: All numbers are as of Sept. 30, 2005. senior judge chief judge visiting judge Source: 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals

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