TEXAS LAWYER, Sept. 25, 2000
BENCHMARKS: IN SESSION
Juvenile Court Judge Finds Peace of Mind
by JOHN COUNCIL
Just across the Trinity River, miles away from downtown Dallas' legal epicenter, is a government building where most of the city's heartbreaking cases are heard. On a daily basis, lawyers, judges and caseworkers inside the Henry Wade Juvenile Justice Center examine the details of unfathomable crimes, from 15-year-old murderers who kill for a few dollars to parents who sexually abuse their children.
Since 1987, 304th District Judge Hal Gaither has sat in judgment of both parents and children accused of mind-numbing depravity as one of Dallas County's two juvenile court judges. Somehow, he's managed to be at peace with himself.
"You learn to leave it all at the office," Gaither says. "If you don't it will kill you."
It's easy to see why. Juvenile judges have incredible power over other people's lives. But with that power comes a mandate to make some rather unpleasant decisions.
Juvenile judges decide whether a child accused of a crime will be adjudicated in the juvenile system where rehabilitation is the focus, or sent through the adult system where hope is usually abandoned at the penitentiary gates.
And they decide whether children taken from their parents by Child Protective Services will remain with the family or be placed elsewhere, sometimes in state care -- an option few concede is the best place to raise a child.
The easiest way to sleep at night, Gaither says, is to keep one thing in mind while making decisions on matters such as CPS removals. "You've got to focus on who is the most important person in the courtroom," he says. "And that's the kid."
Protests and Press
Because of the subject material Gaither handles, it naturally draws the press to his courtroom.
In the early 1990s, there was considerable news coverage involving the case of an Albanian Muslim couple whose two children were removed and placed in a Christian home. The father was accused of fondling his daughter at a public event but was acquitted of sexual abuse charges. Yet during a civil trial in Gaither's court, a jury decided the couple's children should be removed from the home.
The case brought protests by Muslims outside the juvenile courthouse and unfavorable press for Gaither. Some press reports questioned whether what was alleged to be molestation by the father may have actually been an accepted form of affection in Albanian culture.
"There was no cultural defense," Gaither says. "That was a jury trial. It was absolutely the right thing to do," he says of the removal proceeding. "They wanted me to apologize," Gaither says. "But there was nothing to apologize for."
At the time, Gaither defended the proceedings in his courtroom in a letter to the editor in The Dallas Morning News, stating that he wasn't anti-Islamic.
He later went on the offensive, suing the ABC news program "20/20" for libel after they aired a show in 1996 featuring the case with a lead-in that Gaither says incorrectly stated that he felt the Muslim children would be "better off in a Christian home."
"I never said that," Gaither says. His civil suit ended in a confidential settlement, Gaither says.
In 1998, the press was in Gaither's court again covering the case of a 17-year-old high school wrestler from an affluent North Dallas suburb who allegedly gouged the eyes of another teen during a fight. The victim was left partially blind. But after a jury hung during deliberations, lawyers took the case to Gaither to assign punishment.
Instead of sending the teen to the Texas Youth Commission as the prosecution had wanted, Gaither sent him to a military school in Pennsylvania.
Once again, Gaither's sentence was debated in the editorial pages of newspapers, some noting that the punishment may have been too light. As usual, Gaither didn't back off his decision, even in the face of public scrutiny.
"He's done extremely well up there," Gaither says of the juvenile. "I'm sure the right thing was done in that case."
Practicing in the 304th
After 13 years on the bench, Gaither doesn't mind sharing his opinions with lawyers. In fact, lawyers expect him to.
"He is not one to mince words. He's going to tell you what he believes but he does it with judicial demeanor," says Robert James Herrera, a Dallas solo who splits his practice as a master in the juvenile court. "You're going to get a fair hearing and if he goes against you he's going to tell you why. But if he goes against you, he's going to do it professionally."
Gaither was Gov. George W. Bush's chief adviser during the 1996 rewrite of the juvenile code, an effort that dropped the age a juvenile can be certified as an adult to 14. But it also expanded the determinate sentencing statutes (offenses that usually involve violent crime) to keep minors in juvenile detention for longer periods of time instead of sending them to adult prison.
Gaither sticks by the tenets of the law he helped create. Very few juveniles are certified as adults in Gaither's court - about 30 per year by his estimation. Although the prosecution decides whether to seek adult certification, Gaither says prosecutors know what he'll certify, so they don't ask unless it's a worthy case.
But as a former juvenile prosecutor with nearly 10 years' experience, Gaither is quick to certify a juvenile as an adult in cases involving violent offenses - especially if the juvenile poses a danger to society, lawyers say.
However, Gaither listens to lawyers' suggestions on sentencing matters in unusual cases. "If I have a case where my child needs extraordinary help - something that the probation department doesn't provide -- he's very creative," Herrera says. "There are situations where the recommendation would be for the Texas Youth Commission and if it's not a determinate sentencing case if there is some potential for that child - he'll see that in the report and refer them to other placement."
In CPS removal cases, it doesn't matter if the parents are from high-toned North Dallas or impoverished South Dallas, they will be treated the same by Gaither, lawyers say.
"You're dealing with kids from all walks of life and parents from all walks of life. He gives folks the benefit of the doubt," says Allison Sartin, a former Dallas juvenile prosecutor who is now in private practice. "I don't think he prejudges cases. I think a lot of folks who walk in for the first time see him as a hard-line judge. But he's actually very sensitive."
But there are some types of parents that Gaither has no patience for, Sartin says.
"I think he has a firm conviction that you can't be a drug user and an effective parent at the same time. He doesn't have much tolerance for parents who are drug abusers," Sartin says.
"He's seen thousands and thousands of cases and he sees the same pattern," she says. "He's not going to subject a child to that kind of environment."
Hanging It Up
On alternate Sundays, Gaither hosts an evening call-in talk show on Dallas' KRLD 1080 AM radio called "Ask The Judge." Yet few callers ask Gaither about juvenile law, the subject he knows best.
Because Texas juvenile law is a combination of criminal law, family law and civil law, Gaither says he's prepared for most sorts of questions.
He says the same for lawyers who practice in his court. "I tell lawyers who practice here, 'If you can try a good juvenile case, you can practice anywhere,' "Gaither says. "And that's true."
On Dec. 31, 2002, Gaither will hang up his robe for the last time and walk out of the juvenile courthouse for good.
Gaither says he figures 15 years is a long enough time to be a judge. And he says he told his political supporters that his fourth campaign would be his last.
"I just let everybody know this is it," Gaither says. "It's time to smell the roses, I've had a good life."
"I just hope the next person who gets this job loves juvenile law and wants to make a difference."
Judge Harold C. "Hal" Gaither Jr.
304th District Court
First elected to bench: 1986
Dos and Don'ts
Do pull out all of the stops representing a client. Gaither respects that in an attorney.
Don't rely too much on psychoanalysis as evidence in a case. Actions speak louder that words with Gaither and if a client has demonstrated good behavior, that means more to the judge than the text of a report.
Don't lie in court. Gaither will waste no time sending either witnesses or lawyers to jail.
Do take your case to the jury instead of the judge in a child-removal case if your client is a parent who has a demonstrated history of sexual or drug abuse. Gaither doesn't think highly of parents with that kind of past.
Don't ask for a continuance. Gaither will give lawyers a trial on any date they want. But he expects them to stick to that date.
Do ask Gaither about the wishbone offense. He's a former college football radio commentator who covered the now-defunct Southwest Conference.
Copyright 2000, Texas Lawyer. All rights reserved.
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