Defense Bar Faults Court-at-Law 4 on Backlog, Impartiality

Interim judge of family violence court responds to questions

Travis County Commissioner's Court appointed Dimple Malhotra (middle) as interim judge for Travis County Court-at-Law No. 4 (Photo courtesy of Travis County)

In a Nov. 1 letter to Dimple Malhotra (appointed interim judge for Travis County Court-at-Law No. 4 after Mike Denton stepped down to run for Travis County Attorney), the Austin Criminal Defense Lawyers Association offered congratulations to the new judge, then moved quickly to its immediate agenda:

“Our concerns about some much-needed change to the process and culture of Court 4.” According to the letter (signed by ACDLA presiding director Krista Chacona), the association believes several changes are necessary “to ensure that Court 4 works fairly for both sides – both in appearance and reality.”

The letter cites three major complaints: 1) the CCL4 “backlog of cases,” with more than 400 set for trial, including some pending more than two years; 2) high rates of days in jail “due to an unwillingness to grant personal bonds;” and 3) “a lack of even an appearance of impartiality by the court,” citing what the ACDLA considers an undue influence upon the court of “domestic violence advocacy groups.” The letter requests that Malhotra, who is seeking election to the seat, act on all these matters, while noting briefly that her previous experience – as a prosecutor of family violence cases – raises “deep concern” that she will not be an impartial judge.

Asked about the letter, Malhotra noted she received it “on the first or second day” after her appointment, and that she responded in writing, inviting representatives of the ACDLA, Capital Area Private Defender Service, and prosecutors to discuss their concerns (that meeting occurred Nov. 22). In her response, she agreed as to the backlog issue – reporting that her colleagues have already agreed to accept “non-intimate partner” cases (about 10-15% of the CCL4 caseload). She said she would be adding trial dates, while henceforth allowing (barring special circumstances) only one continuance to either side. She also said she would consider a more flexible policy on personal bonds, but could make no “blanket” policy commitment.

Malhotra says she is alert to potential conflicts of interest (and any necessary recusals); as to the concerns about her partiality, she is aware of her “duties and ethical obligations as a judge. I take the Judicial Code of Ethics very seriously.” Elaborating to the Chronicle, she said that victim advocates are present at court only during the Friday protective-order docket, and that their presence “doesn’t affect the merits of protective order cases.”

The ACDLA letter is implicitly directed at Malhotra’s predecessor, now running for C.A. in large part on his record as a “Family Violence Judge.” Denton helped create the specialized court, became its first judge, and cites in his campaign “national recognition for his progressive reforms that finally gave domestic-violence victims a voice at the Travis County Courthouse.” The ACDLA feels that focus has been unfair to the accused in these cases; Denton rejects that notion and any suggestion that the courts return to “the bad old days” before the reforms. “It’s not a backlog problem, it’s a caseload problem,” he told the Chronicle, noting that there are nearly 4,700 cases filed each year in CCL4 – what would be in theory 23 cases heard each day in a four-day week (with one day reserved for protective orders). “It’s good that the other courts will be taking on some of these cases,” Denton said, “but I’ve gone before Commissioners Court many times arguing that we need another domestic violence court. It can’t be fixed by trimming around the edges.”

Denton said his reforms helped reduce Travis County’s rate of domestic-violence homicides to the lowest in Texas — “and one of the best through the entire South” – and that the differences in CCL4 today reflect the changing context of the justice system’s treatment of family violence. “In the old days, before these reforms, victims could be intimidated, and not given the support they needed, and battered women would be victimized a second time in the courtroom. … But the docket moved fast.”

Denton rejected the ACDLA’s suggestion that support for accusers means bias against the accused. “There needs to be justice for everybody that walks into that courtroom,” he said. “That court gave it.”

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