An Austin-based criminal justice reform group alleges that a White Settlement municipal judge is breaking the law and is verbally abusive to some defendants, charges he and a councilman deny.
The Texas Fair Defense Project laid out its allegations against Municipal Judge Gary Ritchie in a letter dated Jan. 9. Ritchie, who also serves at Precinct 6 justice of the peace in Tarrant County, is a accused of breaking a law that requires him to determine whether defendants are financially able to immediately pay fines, court costs and judgments, said Hani Mirza, an attorney who works with the Texas Civil Rights Project.
The White Settlement City Council discussed the matter in executive session Thursday, but no action was taken, City Manager Jeff James said after the meeting was over.
Council members have not had time to fully evaluate all the legal issues brought up in the letter nor have they had time to speak with Ritchie at any length about the allegations, James said.
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The letter will be back on the agenda for the council's regularly scheduled meeting on Tuesday, James said.
Municipal courts most often handle Class C misdemeanor cases such as traffic tickets. Ritchie has served as White Settlement municipal judge since 1995 and is facing two opponents in his JP re-election bid in the March 6 Republican Primary.
"The council values what this organization is saying but they are not sure it applies to our court," James said. "I think the council has faith in our judge."
Mirza explained the allegations: "The judge is supposed to inquire [about ability to pay] and he is not. We have the court forms from one of our attorneys, and they were not provided in writing or orally according to our observations."
Mirza said he and another attorney attended courtroom sessions in September, October and November. Ritchie typically discounted the explanations of defendants who said they did not have the money to pay their fines or other costs and would refuse to provide options such as community service or payment plans, Mirza said.
"These laws are put in place for a reason and judges are supposed to comply," Mirza said. "This affects people's lives. The proceedings are difficult enough and with a judge who is violating the law they can be unbearable."
Ritchie said he would love to speak with the people who wrote the letter. The statute cited in the letter does not apply to municipal court judges, Ritchie said.
But the problem is not identifying people who are too poor to pay fines, Ritchie said. The problem is getting defendants to come to court to address their poverty issues. The only way to get some people to court is to issue a warrant and have them picked up, and that only happens when a defendant has failed to take advantage of the several alternatives that have been offered to them, Ritchie said.
Those are the people who go to jail, Ritchie said.
"I've been a municipal court judge for 23 years," Ritchie said. "People who come to my court do not go to jail for failing to pay a debt. I know better."
Councilman David Mann described the letter as a power play, designed to use the bench to change law. This demand letter is not about justice, he said, it's about the Defense Project trying to get their way.
"I understand that this group likes to bully cities," Mann said. "As far as anything illegal, it's not happening. Judge Ritchie is one of the best in the state. He goes by the book. I've never seen him put anyone in jail. I've seen him go out of his way to keep people out of jail. He tries to work with people."
A Texas Commission of Judicial Conduct database search revealed no previous disciplinary history for Ritchie.
"I'm happy to speak to these people about their concerns but I'm not sure they are playing fair," Ritchie said. "I feel like I've been ambushed."