Welcome to Courtroom 14, Judge Michael Fields Presiding

Members of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association is handing out big yellow cards to the people entering courtroom 14.

They read in part “the judge or court staff may try to get you to plead guilty or ‘no contest’ without a lawyer.”

A fascinating concept, particularly given that whole constitutional right to counsel thing.

The Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association (HCCLA) was the group passing them out in the halls. They told Eyewitness News they’ve heard too many complaints against Judge Michael Fields in the past few weeks.

“At this point, we’re concerned. It’s gone on for too long. We feel like it’s appropriate to step in,” said group president Carmen Roe. “They have the right to an attorney. They have the right to remain silent, they have the right to a jury trial. We believe those rights are not being given to these clients.”

The group accused Judge Fields and court staff with pressuring for guilty and no-contest pleas. They argued that strips defendants of their constitutional rights.

Well, yeah. One would think.  But that leaves a huge gaping hole between what the law seems to require and what happens when you pass through the doors of courtroom 14.  Much as I appreciate what the HCCLA is trying to do, it’s a stop-gap measure so that defendants aren’t pressured into pleas without counsel.  But how does Judge Michael Fields get away with this, and why isn’t there a supervising judge who sends Fields a note saying, “you can’t do that”?

Apparently, this has been going on for a while. Too long, according to HCCLA president Carmen Roe.  How long is too long?  It strikes me that one second would be about right.

Judge Fields offers a curious explanation:

We’re not always going to agree, but if we’re always trying to do the right thing, then the best thing happens for both the public and the citizens accused.

Whatever that means.  It’s always heartwarming when a judge explains his conduct in a manner utterly devoid of any cognizable meaning whatsoever.

And I’m following the law to the letter, and I believe the spirit as well.

You’re gonna get a fair shake, and the judge is gonna follow the law.

So Judge Fields is long on empty platitudes, even if he’s a bit short on this whole right to counsel thing.  A lot of folks hear someone utter some feel-good nonsense and find themselves satisfied that all is right with the world.  After all, the judge said you’re gonna get a fair shake. The judge says he follows the law.  He said so.

It was explained to me that while a defendant is entitled to counsel at arraignment, each judge in Harris County is allowed to handle the nuts and bolts as they see fit.  Apparently, Judge Fields doesn’t see a lawyerless coerced plea before whatever it is he deems the official arraignment as a problem.  He’s a judge who wants the wheels of justice to grind smoothly.  That’s long been a big problem in Houston, as brother Fickman took pains to explain.

But Judge Fields is a bit of a special case.  His idea of justice hasn’t always meshed well with the ideals others find worthwhile in the law.  Paul Kennedy had some incisive commentary about Judge Fields’ notion of justice:

Last June Michael Giacona got behind the wheel of his van after drinking and ended up in an accident that claimed the life of Aaron Pennywell. Mr. Giacona was charged with a misdemeanor DWI because investigators could not determine who was at fault for the accident.

As part of a plea, Mr. Giancona was sentenced to one year in the Harris County Jail. After 90 days, Judge Michael Fields ordered that Mr. Giancona be released from jail and placed on probation. The terms of that probation included standing at the intersection where the accident occurred on four consecutive Saturdays wearing a sign that said “I killed Aaron Pennywell while driving drunk.”

But dead body, defendant, so why not some humiliation regardless of whether he killed anyone.  Judge Fields says he follows the letter of the law, and spirit as well. Can’t you feel the spirit?

But eventually, the HCCLA is going to either run out of bright yellow cards or members willing to stand outside courtroom 14 all day to warn people entering to abandon all hope.  It will work for a while, but not forever. [Edit] Though I’m informed that while it may not last forever, they are determined to outlast Judge Fields.

And defendants who have the misfortune to enter Judge Michael Fields’ courtroom will make decisions that will fundamentally alter their lives without the benefit of counsel, and some of those other technicalities the Constitution requires.

On the bright side, Judge Fields doesn’t appear to be a whole lot more fun during voir dire than at arraignment.  Maybe the only good answer is to stay out of Harris County, Texas.  Except they’ve got some fine barbecue there.  You’ll have to decide for yourself whether it’s worth the risk.

H/T Rick Horowitz

18 comments on “Welcome to Courtroom 14, Judge Michael Fields Presiding

  1. Mike

    As someone who practices in Harris County, Texas, I’m not surprised at all. Thankfully, I rarely have to go to the criminal courts these days.

  2. ExCop-LawStudent

    Texas has long been known for judges who are a bit different, going back to the first Chief Justice of the Republic (who either committed suicide or fell off the ferry drunk while running for president). It happens with elected judges.

    Also, Goode’s is nowhere near the best barbecue in Harris County. Try Gatlin’s BBQ or Virgie’s Bar-B-Que. For the best in Texas (and therefore in the world), you’ll have to go to the Kreuz Market in Lockhart (between Austin and San Antonio).

    1. Mike

      Yeah, IMO Goode is downright mediocre, if not gross. They use a stainless steel smoker and just throw in wood chips, and their brisket ends up being dry and flavorless. In fact, Rudy’s (a chain from Central Texas) is way better. For the real deal, Killens BBQ in Pearland is hands down one of the best I’ve ever had (and that’s comparing it to the various top rated joints in Central Texas). Gatlin’s is good too, and I’ve been meaning to give Corkscrew in Spring a try, but they’re out of my way and only serve until they run out.

        1. Marc not-R

          You really wanted to start a fight here, didn’t you. Start talking smack about barbecue. I can vouch for Corkscrew in the Woodlands and I have heard Killean’s in Pearland is equally good. And they are not even in the top 5 in Texas. Come on down and see if you retain that opinion!

          1. SHG Post author

            Been to Texas. You been to KC? Des Moines? Milwaukee? Atlanta? Nashville? Memphis? They’ve all got barbecue.

            1. ExCop-LawStudent

              LOL, been to KC, Atlanta, Nashville, & Memphis, along with some others.

              The sauce in KC is too sweet. Memphis (dry) is OK, the others are all also-rans. LOL, obviously you haven’t been to the right barbeque places in Texas. Holler at me next time you’re in my area and I’ll take you to one of our hole-in-the-wall barbeque joints.

              I’ll defer to your legal knowledge, but barbeque is the heart & soul of Texas.

            2. ExCop-LawStudent

              Well come on down friend – we’ll hit the Lockhart Smokehouse in Dallas. We can eat either brisket or clod there, both are outstanding without sauce. It is central Texas style so no sauce on the meat, but there is sauce at the tables (but you won’t need it). Or we can have the Kreuz sausage. And wash it down with Shiner Bock.

            3. Marc not-R

              Yes, I have been all of those places, but haven’t eaten Barbecue in Des Moines or Nashville. Memphis runs a close second for my money. The rest? Meh. Been to New York, too. Nothing resembling Barbecue there.

              Ex-Cop, is that the Lockhart’s on Bishop in Dallas? I passed a chance to eat there on Friday, but I will have too next time I am in Dallas.

    2. SHG Post author

      Oh no. I am not getting any further embroiled in the Texas barbecue wars. I’ve been to Goode’s and it’s excellent. Not saying there isn’t better, but I only know what I know.

  3. Thomas R. Griffith

    Sir, y’all got me wanting some ribs (beef) , (pork is reserved for jails & prisons where trichina Tuesdays is feared) while thinking about that commercial with – “Get a rope” as the punch line. Something about Fake-ass cowboys and allegedly Real BBQ sauce in relation to Texas – the land of loopholes & state of confusion. More coming regarding the SJ post at hand. Warning it’s kinda nasty. Thanks.

    1. SHG Post author

      You can get as nasty as you want, but keep it on Judge Fields or barbecue. Everything else is off limits.

      And Goode goes a barbecue duck that goes perfectly with a side of brisket.

  4. Anonsters

    I’m wondering what role judicial elections play in how he manages to get away with his behavior. I imagine his behavior help ingratiate him with a certain sector of law-and-order Republicans (of which party he is a member). And because Texas.

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