Judge Handcuffed and Jailed for Trying Wife-Beater

by Guest Writers Rita Mayer and Ilene Whitworth

Judge Bonnie Reed was led in handcuffs from her court room.

In a true taste of Texas politics, Judge Bonnie Reed was jailed for contempt of court April 11. This extraordinary action was the first time in more than 20 years that a sitting judge has been jailed for criminal contempt in the United States, and the first time ever in Texas. But the case has less to do with legal technicalities than with anti-feminist antagonists seeking revenge on a local leader in stopping domestic violence.

 For nearly 10 years, Judge Reed has been an ardent defender of women's rights. After her first appointment as a county court judge in June 1985, she primarily handled criminal cases such as misdemeanors and DWIs. Reed also handled some family violence cases, where she quickly saw an unmet need.

 Reed worked long hours to convince the district attorney of Bexar County that all family violence cases should be heard in just two courts. Prior to her efforts, the cases were dispersed among eight courts, with only one prosecutor running among the courts to try the cases.

 The inefficiency of the system often forced judges to throw out the family violence charges on the grounds that the prosecutor was unprepared to go to trial. Prosecutors were also routinely dropping such cases when the male perpetrator would say that his partner "didn't want to press charges."

 And because there was no follow up, many violent family situations would return to court for more serious offenses. With the cases that were heard fielded out among the different courts, there was no consistency in dealing with perpetrators. Offenders' lawyers tried to get their clients' cases heard in the more lenient judges' courts.

 Because of her persistence, the county commissioners, court and the district attorney's office agreed to forward the family violence cases to her court and a second court, headed by a male judge. During this period, she also began pressuring the district attorney's office to appoint a second prosecutor for family violence. Eventually one prosecutor was assigned to each family violence court.

 Judge Reed began educating herself on the cycle of family violence and current legal remedies, leading her to institute changes in the methods of dealing with offenders.

 The most important aspect of Judge Reed's court is a "no drop" policy. Even if the victims are unwilling to prosecute or the district attorney's office recommends dismissal, Judge Reed insists on hearing the case. All accused offenders arrested for domestic violence face their day in court.

 Reed's intervention methods begin with family counseling, especially for batterers and sometimes for the victims. She educates the families about the cycle of violence and prevention.

 If alcohol or drug use are contributing factors to the violence, Reed requires offenders to complete a treatment program and attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings daily for a prescribed period of time. Occasionally, she orders offenders institutionalized for 60 or 90 days of treatment of substance abuse problems.

 Reed also forces offenders who are unwed fathers to become legally responsible for their children. In doing so, Reed assures women the legal right to financial support should the offenders attempt to skirt their responsibilities.

 Finally, Reed orders jail time for the most violent offenders. Under Texas law, family violence assaults are class A misdemeanors with a maximum punishment of one year in the county jail. Because of Judge Reed's efforts, convicted offenders remain in jail for the duration of their sentence, with no time off for good behavior.

 Even with this degree of judicial involvement, Judge Reed has achieved her goal of handling all domestic violence cases within 100 days, at a time when court cases frequently take a year or more to be heard.

 The main impetus behind such speed is the safety of the women involved. In the last few years, there have been two murders and a suicide among abused women in San Antonio while their family violence cases were waiting to be heard.

 One of Reed's proudest accomplishments was the honor of being selected to educate other judges about her methods of dealing with family violence. Texas now mandates that judges receive six hours of training in family violence issues.

 As a result of her efforts to protect women, Reed made enemies among some politicians and defense attorneys -- the most tenacious of whom was John Longoria.

 Longoria began as a defense attorney and later became a county judge. In 1992 he was elected to the state legislature. Throughout his career, Longoria continued to work as a defense attorney, representing numerous anti- abortion activists arrested for protesting outside abortion clinics. Aware that Judge Reed is an abortion rights supporter, Longoria would demand that Reed recuse herself from hearing the anti-abortion cases assigned to her because of her stance. She refused.

 The clash that led to Judge Reed being taken from court in handcuffs came over a Texas statute allowing an attorney who is also a legislator to obtain a mandatory legislative continuance of any court case heard while the legislature is in session. The continuance delays the case until the session is over, which could put domestic violence victims at increased risk.

 Such a case was scheduled to be heard by Judge Reed, during the legislative session, and the defendant was represented by Rep. Longoria. Longoria filed for a continuance, but Reed denied it. Instead, she scheduled the trial for a Friday, when the legislature was not in session. Longoria is often in court on Fridays to represent his clients.

 After the trial began, Longoria filed a writ of mandamus with the Fourth Court of Appeals. He obtained an order directing Judge Reed to stop the trial. By the time she received the order, the trial was going into closing arguments. Believing the point to be moot and having no legal precedent to stop it at that stage, Reed completed the trial. The offender was found guilty of assaulting his wife. Longoria then filed a motion for criminal contempt of court in the Fourth Court of Appeals.

The appeals court decided April 11 that Judge Reed was indeed guilty of criminal contempt. She was sentenced to a $500 fine, court costs of over $1,000, and 30 days in jail. At the hearing's conclusion, the court ordered that Judge Reed be immediately handcuffed and taken to the Bexar County Jail. Raise your hand if you believe a male judge in the same situation would have been led away in handcuffs.

 Reed's supporters quickly organized a demonstration outside the jail that drew extensive media coverage. Chants of "we love you, Judge Reed" greeted her when she was finally released on a personal recognizance bond later that night. Judge Reed is appealing the sentence, but faces possible removal from the bench.

 Offenders attorneys are again trying to disperse the family violence cases among the eight courts. Women's rights activists think this would lead to a return to earlier days of light or no sentences for violent offenders and "forum- shopping" by defense attorneys for lenient judges.

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