The Strange Case of the 353rd District Court
"Vexatious Litigant" Connor vs. incumbent Judge Sulak in Dem primary
By Michael King,
9:00AM, Tue. Feb. 18, 2020
Perhaps the oddest Democratic primary judicial race is that for the 353rd District Court, where popular incumbent Judge Tim Sulak faces repeated stealth Republican Madeleine Connor. Connor – who insists she is “nonpartisan” as well as judicious – has also been officially declared a “vexatious litigant” in two different courts.
As we reported earlier (“Election Ticker: Marching Toward 2020,” Dec. 27), Connor (currently general counsel for the Texas Veterans Commission) has twice (2018 and 2019) been designated a “vexatious litigant” by different judges, for aggressively pursuing lawsuits pro se (on her own behalf) that have been repeatedly ruled meritless. (Under those rulings, she must obtain direct judicial permission before filing similar legal actions anywhere in Texas.) Most recently, in late January federal District Judge Robert Pitman awarded fees and sanctions to three people who had been defendants in Connor’s string of numerous lawsuits. According to Pitman’s Jan. 27 ruling, Connor is ordered to pay the defendants $43,053.25 in attorneys’ fees, various expenses, and for “damages incurred in defending against Connor’s frivolous appeal.”
Connor is also a "Democratic" candidate for the 353rd District Court seat, although she regularly votes in Republican primaries and twice ran for judicial seats as a conservative Republican (299th District Court, 2006; Third Court of Appeals, 2012) and once as a Democrat (353rd, 2008) – thus far without success. She told me earlier this month that she hadn’t decided yet if she will appeal the sanctions order, and that judicial races should be “nonpartisan,” so that her voting and campaign history is irrelevant.
The lawsuits were the outgrowth of what Connor concedes was a “neighborhood argument gone nuclear,” among members of the Lost Creek Municipal District and its Neighborhood Association. Initially, the disagreement was over a utility project to construct disability-compliant sidewalks in Lost Creek (an Austin subdivision of about 1,200 homes, west of Hwy 360, with a median home value of $875,000), but the online and email correspondence that followed provoked Connor into filing suits against her neighbors for “defamation and harassment.” The courts repeatedly found her lawsuits without merit, her appeals more so – and specifically ruled that an attorney should have known better.
Nevertheless, Connor told the Chronicle that the judges were wrong on the facts and the law, and that she shouldn’t be sanctioned legally or financially for exercising her constitutional rights. Connor wanted it emphasized that state District Judge Catherine Mauzy, who in March of 2019 was the second judge to declare her a vexatious litigant, had in 2007 represented her ex-husband in a “very contentious divorce.” Connor says Mauzy “should have recused herself,” although Connor apparently waived that issue at the time. (She has appealed Mauzy’s ruling to the Third Court of Appeals.) Connor acknowledges no such potential conflict applies to federal Judge Pitman, but argues that he acted “beyond the remand” of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals and “outside his jurisdiction.”
Questions to Connor about her Democratic candidacy very quickly detour into the dense weeds of her lawsuits and her ongoing quarrels with her neighbors, opposing attorneys, and the courts, but she does insist she has “no problem with Judge Sulak” and reiterates her belief that judicial races should be “nonpartisan … there is no place in the courtroom for politics.” That doesn’t explain why she repeatedly voted and ran as a Republican, although she argues now that “the Republicans have gone too far with tort reform” – including specifically the laws concerning vexatious litigants. She told Texas Lawyer hers is a story of “David vs. Goliath,” and that in her candidacy, she’s representing “the little guy” against the government.
In his January ruling granting sanctions against Connor, Pitman wrote, “For nearly a year, Connor prosecuted a meritless appeal with no legitimate prospect of success.” Pitman noted that the Court of Appeals remanded the case to his court for consideration of fees and sanctions with the quite unusual all-caps (and possibly hopeless) proviso: “THIS CASE IS OVER.”
Asked about Connor’s primary challenge, Judge Sulak declined to discuss her history of litigation beyond what is contained in the judges’ orders – “the behaviors are well stated in those opinions from both of those judges” – while hoping that voters will be able to take note of that history. He told Texas Lawyer, “A lawyer who shows reckless disregard for her duty to the court may be viewed as questionable in her role as a judge.”
Of his own judicial record (he’s been the 353rd District Judge since 2010, re-elected twice), Sulak said, “I take a fair amount of pride in my record of public service. I am dedicated to the due process of law and the rule of law. … I believe I have a record of ethical, fair, judicial temperament.” He cited his top rating in Austin Bar Association judicial evaluation polls. “I think that’s because I try to make sure that all litigants are fairly heard,” Sulak said, “and an appropriate outcome is based on the law and the evidence that has come into the courtroom.”
It remains for Democratic voters to work their way down the primary ballot, and to determine which candidates appear to be the most qualified to remain or become a judge. In the 353rd District Court contest, the choice is fairly stark.