The Honorable Charlie Baird

Judge Baird dispenses evenhanded justice – and Travis County prosecutors don't know what to make of him

The Honorable Charlie Baird
Photo by Jana Birchum

Friday mornings are always busy in Travis County's 299th District Court. Defendants and family members sit in the gallery, a handful of county prosecutors and court personnel sifts through stacks of case files making notes and consulting with colleagues, and a gaggle of defense attorneys crowds in front of the bench, waiting their turn to approach. Presiding is District Judge Charlie Baird, on the bench in coat and tie. He doesn't often wear his formal black robe – and he rarely dons it on Friday, when he plows through a lengthy docket. This is a felony court, and that means serious business: burglaries and robberies, family violence and sexual assaults, drug cases and murders. The Friday docket has a bit of everything – including probationers eligible for early release, state motions to revoke probation for others, defendants wanting out of jail on bond, and cases to be disposed of through plea bargain agreements. There are, inevitably, many of those; some 90% of all criminal cases end in a bargain – generally, a sentence negotiated between a prosecutor and defense counsel. Baird, who was elected to the bench in 2006, has approximately 900 active cases on his docket; without the plea bargain system in place, the work of the criminal justice system would grind to a halt.

In that aspect, Baird's court is typical of any felony criminal court. What makes the 299th different is Baird himself. Even amid the stack of pending cases, Baird is relaxed, his manner easy. Consider a typical case – a plea bargain for burglary or drug possession, for example. Baird reads over the case file before him, hears what offer the state will make to dispose of it – and then stops, peers over the top of his reading glasses, and fixes his gaze on the defendant. He addresses him by name.

"Tell me about your life," he says.

Baird asks about schooling, about work history, family life, and more often than not, whether the defendant believes he has a drug or alcohol problem. Baird connects with the people that come before him – he remembers their names, the details of their cases, and the details they share with him about their lives. And he concentrates on connecting people and resources – substance-abuse treatment, work-force programs. In short, Baird actually gives a shit. "My mind was blown when I [first] saw him on the bench here," says veteran criminal attorney Keith Hampton. "There's this kid standing there, and the first thing out of [Baird's] mouth is, 'I'm proud of you.' And he keeps going," praising the young man for his accomplishments while on probation. When Baird finished, Hampton recalls, the kid looked up and "spontaneously says, 'Judge, can I shake your hand?' And I thought, oh my God – that doesn't happen. You don't see that connection." It is impressive, say Baird's supporters, that in an overburdened system, Baird still deals with people and not simply with case numbers.

Baird doesn't think what he does is particularly unique – or at least he doesn't think it should be. "I think that should be the rule and not the exception," he says. "I think I have a chance to be a positive and constructive force in the lives of a lot of people, and I want to do that. That makes me happy." There are two parts to his job, he says, and they're equally important. First, "Are they guilty? And that just relates to the factual scenario under which they are charged," he says. "Once you get past the guilt issue, then it is just a broad number of people and circumstances that got them into the criminal justice system," he continues. "I am trying to figure out how to be a positive and creative force in their lives and how to get [them] out of the criminal justice system and not just be a returning part of it."

Baird was the first felony district judge to use GPS tracking devices for defendants on bond awaiting trial for violent offenses, and he has taken a lead in using alcohol-monitoring equipment for felony probationers; he has established relationships with businesses (at least one run by a former probationer from his court) and job-training programs to help defendants get better jobs; he asks former drug addicts to talk with jailed defendants to prove that treatment works and can make their lives better. Baird is "trying different things, innovative things," says Judge Jon Wisser, who presided over the 299th for 24 years, "giving people more chances, and using prison as a last resort."

Indeed, it would seem that Baird's approach to doing the work of criminal justice would put him in good company in Austin – and in particular with the office of Travis Co. District Attor­ney Ronnie Earle, who has long been a champion of "community justice" and has spoken often during his 32-year career as the county's top law enforcer about the need to find alternatives to incarceration and ways to strengthen our "ethics infrastructure." Those perspectives have earned Earle and his office a national reputation for innovation. Thus, it might be logical to assume that Earle and his office would embrace a judge like Baird – some­one who regularly practices what Earle for so long has preached.

Baird at work in the 299th District Court
Baird at work in the 299th District Court (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Oddly enough, that is not the case. Instead, the relationship between the judge and the prosecutor's office is, at best, frosty. Since Baird took the bench in January 2007, a feud has been simmering, at times bubbling to the surface in the form of very public spats that have hit the pages of the Statesman – beginning in December, when the daily reported that a bank robber to whom Baird had given a deferred jail sentence had absconded. Although Earle would not comment on the record for this story, he's told the Statesman that his office has questions about "Baird's discharge of his duty to be fair and impartial."

Behind the scenes, courthouse insiders of the prosecutorial persuasion are rather more blunt: Baird is "rude" and "disrespectful" to victims, sometimes to jurors, and often to assistant district attorneys, they say, and he "doesn't understand the law." Notably, however, Baird's critics can't quite supply specific examples of the judge's purported misunderstandings. As a result, to Baird's defenders (several of them criminal defense attorneys), the allegations are simply sour grapes. "Prosecutors get annoyed," one attorney said. "They are used to getting their way, and they're poor losers."

His defenders submit that Baird has done nothing more than level a playing field that is usually stacked in favor of the state – in other words, Baird treats everyone exactly the same. "He is the only judge that is fair to both sides – he treats [prosecutors] the same as defense attorneys," said attorney Travis Williamson. "In most other courts, you've got a third prosecutor" on the bench. Several courthouse denizens dismissed that characterization out of hand – one veteran member of the D.A.'s staff sniffed that on the contrary, there are no "pro-prosecution judges" in Travis County.

Yet the tension between the D.A.'s office and Baird cannot be summed up simply as a story of overzealous prosecutors who can't stand losing and who believe judges and prosecutors should always be on the same team. Although it undoubtedly has some basis in adversarial courtroom culture, that caricature misses a deeper truth. In fact, the prosecutorial reaction more precisely reflects the story of a fiercely independent judge, working in the midst of a routinely politicized system of criminal justice that rarely rewards such judicial independence.

Fixing the Problem

The year was 1990, and Charlie Baird was frustrated. He was 34 years old and had been practicing law in Houston for 10 years, mostly representing criminal defendants. He'd wanted to be a lawyer ever since he was a kid, growing up in the East Texas town of Gilmer. His parents had two friends who were lawyers, and Baird recalls he would sit in his family's living room for hours listening to their stories – the pair had represented several Lone Star Steelwork­ers falsely accused of murder during the turbulent 1968 workers' strike. Baird knew that was the kind of work he wanted to do.

Baird attended Kilgore Junior College, then transferred to UT, graduating in 1976 with a degree in business administration. After a stint in Washington, D.C. (working for Rep. Ray Roberts), he returned to Houston and South Texas College of Law; he graduated in December 1979 and began practicing law the following spring.

In school, Baird had been, in his own estimation, decidedly average. "I had always been just terribly average," he recalled recently. "I was an average student in high school; I was an average student in college; I was an average student in law school." But soon after he began practicing law, things changed. Suddenly, Baird felt compelled to be better than average – he wanted to be the best. "I don't know what happened; I think it was the responsibility of all of these cases. ... It was like a switch went on, and I wanted ... to be the very best lawyer that I could be," he said. He realized that every case was the most important case for that client, and he felt compelled to give each equal attention and dedication. "I started working really, really hard at my craft," he said. He tried a lot of cases and read a lot of law – he was determined to stay as current on the law as possible. He subscribed to a service that compiled and distributed appellate-court opinions; he studied every single one. And he began to use them in his work. "I would get these [opinions], and I would say, 'Boy, this really helps me on the Jones case,' or whatever," he recalls. "And then I would give them to the judge in Harris County and say: 'You know, judge, my case is similar to Smith v. State. I have it right here; I'd like you to read that.'"

Much to his dismay, Baird recalls, the district judges he appeared before not only didn't read the cases, but they didn't seem to care. To Baird, that meant they weren't following the law – "and I would not get a reason for them not following the law," he said. At first he thought he would be vindicated on appeal, but that didn't happen either. The cases wouldn't go anywhere, and Baird was left feeling like the courts weren't interested either in participating in the process or, indeed, following the rule of law. "It was just a high level of frustration," he said.

Texas’ Court of Criminal Appeals in 1994, the year that Republicans Sharon Keller (far right) and one-term-wonder Stephen Mansfield (far left) were elected to the court. Baird (third from left) would be the last Democrat voted off the court, in 1998.
Texas’ Court of Criminal Appeals in 1994, the year that Republicans Sharon Keller (far right) and one-term-wonder Stephen Mansfield (far left) were elected to the court. Baird (third from left) would be the last Democrat voted off the court, in 1998. (Photo courtesy of Charlie Baird)

By the beginning of the new decade, Baird had decided what to do about it. He'd run for a seat on Texas' highest criminal bench, the Court of Criminal Appeals. "I'll just run for the court," he recalled, "and I'll fix this problem myself."

He ran, from El Paso to Texarkana and everywhere in between, and won – due in part to the strength of the 1990 statewide Democratic ticket, with Gov. Ann Richards at the top – becoming the youngest judge ever to sit on the high court's bench. Over the next eight years, Baird developed a reputation as an independent-minded jurist. "Judge Baird has a national reputation for fairness and independence," says Stephen Bright, president of the Southern Center for Human Rights and a law professor at Yale, who met Baird while he was on the CCA. At the time, Bright was researching and writing about a "disturbing trend" of judges being voted off the bench for "standing up" for the Constitution, instead of gauging the pulse of political concerns before meting out justice. In Houston, for example, Bright said he found that if district court judges didn't "agree" with the positions taken and arguments made by the District Attorney's Office, then-Harris Co. D.A. Johnny Holmes would simply "run one of his prosecutors" against the offending judge in the next election. It was a sure way to keep the black robes in line. "In many courts, prosecutors are used to getting their way," Bright says. "Of course, that's not how it is supposed to work." That wasn't a problem for Judge Baird, notes Bright, at least not in the way he approached his work on the bench. He did his best to remain above the political fray – even as the court made a dramatic change, beginning with the 1994 defeat of Gov. Ann Richards by George W. Bush, who brought with him on the Republican ticket a swath of new state officials, including freshman Judge Sharon Keller (currently the CCA's fiercely conservative presiding judge).

As the court morphed from a bench dominated by moderate-to-liberal Democrats into the exclusive domain of stridently conservative Republicans, the strong judicial voice that Baird had begun to develop in the early Nineties increasingly became a voice of dissent. What never changed for Baird was his commitment to the rule of law and his concern that the justice system carefully handle the cases of individual people – the victims and defendants whose lives, and fortunes or misfortunes, would become case law. In the early years on the bench, Baird found it fairly easy to model the change he'd sought in running for the seat – the justices revamped the way they decided cases, for example, turning from a process that had the judges literally draw numbers to assign opinion-writing duties to embrace the practice of judicial conferences (familiar from the U.S. Supreme Court), in which the jurists considered their decisions over two days of meetings.

With the election of Keller, and one-term Judge Stephen Mansfield (a notorious legal novice who, during his judicial tenure, was cited for scalping UT football tickets), the balance of power began to shift, and the court's decision conferences ended. In fact, says Baird, the court's entire judicial philosophy shifted. "I had the good sense to know ... when I was elected, that I was elected because of Ann Richards – that no matter what my campaign platform was, nobody individually was going out there and voting for Charlie Baird," he said. "I didn't think I had an agenda to accomplish when I got there. That changed in 1994," he continued. "Keller and Mansfield were not smart enough to figure out that they were not elected on their agenda, that they were elected because of George Bush. And so they both thought, 'Well, we went out and campaigned, and we were harder and tougher and more reactionary on crime ... and so that's why all these people voted for us, and that's the way they want us to be as judges.' And with that came, I think, the shift at the court to the reactionary, right-wing side and more ... driven by political agendas than by resolution of the rule of law." The days-long discussion conferences dwindled to no more than "maybe an hour" on a Monday afternoon. "It was all predetermined what [the opinion] was going to be, and nobody was open to a discussion or debate," he said. "It was very frustrating."

Baird was not one to go along to get along; he consistently wrote more opinions each year than any other judge on the court, and he pushed the majority to address specific points of law by writing strong, detailed opinions – even in cases the majority would rather have addressed with no written opinion, which lawyers refer to as "white cards," for the small, white postcard notice that notes only that an appeal has been denied. That's what happened in several high-profile cases – including the infamous case of Roy Criner, wrongfully convicted of rape. (When DNA tests proved someone else, not Criner, had had sex with the victim, Keller dismissed that evidence as meaningless – the victim might have been promiscuous, she opined, and Criner might have used a condom.) In that case (and several others) Keller was forced to issue her retrograde opinion only because Baird had issued his dissent, and the majority opinion in Criner reads more like a retort to Baird than a stand-alone, reasoned judicial argument.

Baird's dissents on rejected appeals made him a perfect political foil for Republicans seeking to paint him as just a knee-jerk, criminal-favoring liberal. The political pressure mounted – some friends even suggested Baird switch parties in order to retain his seat via straight-ticket GOP voters – yet Baird did not bow. "The easy thing to do is to say, 'Screw it, let them do it,'" he said of the court majority. "People elected me as the judge to have opinions and to put those in writing. And rather than just say, 'I dissent' ... it was my job to say why I thought the other side was wrong. That helped me to be intellectually honest. If I could not articulate a reason as to why the majority was wrong, then I ought to join the majority." But the inexorable GOP electoral wave continued, and in 1998, Baird was the final Democrat voted off the CCA bench, replaced by Judge Mike Keasler.

Although Baird suffered political heat and eventual defeat for the legal positions he articulated, his opinions in several critical cases – including Criner's – were ultimately vindicated by federal judges, while Keller's majority opinions were roundly criticized. Criner was released from prison in 2000, after spending 10 years behind bars for a crime he did not commit.

The Right Reasons

The dramatic, right-wing shift on the Court of Criminal Appeals had again left Baird feeling frustrated. "I could see how the law was not affected by what it should've been affected by, which is a reasoned thought process. ... It was kind of governed by a results-oriented jurisprudence that was driven by politics." Baird spent the next eight years teaching law – at Texas Tech, Loyola University, and South Texas College of Law – and working occasionally as a visiting judge, both on the 13th Court of Appeals and in the Travis Co. district courts. He says the break from the CCA bench recharged his batteries: "It gave me more of an appreciation for the adversarial system, and for the rule of law, and it took a lot of the cynicism out of me," he said.

Baird taking his oath of office in 1990
Baird taking his oath of office in 1990 (Photo courtesy of Charlie Baird)

When he was approached in 2005 by a group of lawyers suggesting he run for the seat being vacated by retiring Judge Wisser, Baird decided to take the chance. "It gave me an opportunity to get back into public service, which is where I enjoy being." In the Democratic primary, he easily defeated Assistant District Attorney Buddy Meyer and trounced a token GOP opponent in the fall. He is currently the only district judge with any significant criminal defense experience and the only Travis Co. judge to have served on the state's highest appellate bench. Many courthouse regulars were thrilled: "This man is one of the best we've got. He has an ability to make a connection with these defendants and [looks for] cases where there is an opportunity to give somebody the resources they need to leave the life of crime," said Sue Berkel, a defense lawyer who has also served as an assistant county attorney and a municipal judge. "His depth of knowledge of criminal law is tremendous. He is very interested in giving everyone a fair shake, and he is not going to be cowed by powerful interests."

Not everybody at the courthouse has been so welcoming. Some defense attorneys find him meddlesome – directing them on which motions to file or explaining what arguments they should make on appeal, in courtroom interjections that some find off-putting (even though most generally agree that his motives are sincere and not personal). But the real trouble for Baird has come from the D.A.'s office. Despite numerous requests, District Attorney Earle declined to provide any on-the-record comments for this story, and his fellow prosecutors were no more forthcoming. Yet the courthouse, by nature, is a talkative place. Lawyers are professionally trained to argue, and they're surrounded by daily melodrama, so it's no surprise that the courthouse rumor stream routinely runs deep and rich. In recent months, Baird has been a frequent topic of discussion. He's got "judicial flu," they say – courthouse lingo suggesting Baird thinks too much of himself. Or he makes Wisser, who was previously considered the most defense-minded judge, "look like a conservative." Against such a formidable adversary, the poor, beleaguered D.A.'s office is at its wit's end: "We just can't work with him," said several prosecutors, invariably preferring not to attach their names to the sentiment.

Beyond a generic disdain for Baird's apparent evenhandedness – which they see as imbalanced – the specific sources of hostility aren't entirely clear. There is, of course, also the fact that Baird defeated Meyer, the D.A.'s designated candidate for the job. Most of the criminal judges in Travis Co. have spent time in the D.A.'s office, and as a consequence, the open courthouse secret is a sense of judicial entitlement among prosecutors. When it's mysteriously become someone's "turn" to run, the rest of the potential field is expected to clear a path to the bench. Baird certainly didn't do that. Baird "wasn't chosen by the establishment," says Hampton. "He's a new creature."

Retired Judge Wisser acknowledges there may be some leftover resentment among prosecutors. There is "much more friction and personal animosity with the D.A.'s office. He ran against the [D.A.'s] trial chief [Meyer], so some of that may be expected," Wisser says. "He has a strong personality. He's an interesting fellow, and he's certainly shaking things up here and doing things that he thinks are right."

Baird is certainly carving a unique procedural path. He releases more defendants on personal bond than any other district judge, and he has under supervision nearly 2,000 probationers. Baird tries to bring into his court every defendant "within a couple days, to see if he can release them," says Wisser. "That was never done before." Judges more generally rely on assessments done by the county's Pretrial Services to decide matters of bond, but Baird "likes to bring them in so that he can personally look at the case." In matters of bond and plea agreements, sometimes Baird rattles prosecutors, Wisser said. They say, "I'll make a recommendation, but it doesn't mean anything," because Baird will do what he wants. "That is somewhat different. Most judges are going to accept the D.A.'s [deal] in 90 percent of the cases." If the prosecutors and defense attorneys have agreed to something, Wisser said, "then it's OK with me."

Baird takes instead a highly personalized approach. "If you're going to participate in that process and ... approve it, then you have to make sure you're approving it for the right reasons – that it is in fact going to have the impact that everybody wants it to have," Baird says. "I just want to make sure that ... I am comfortable doing what ought to be done in a case. I've had cases where I told the individual that I wouldn't accept the plea bargain because I wasn't convinced he was guilty and I thought he ought to try that case," he continued. "And I've had others that I've rejected because I didn't think that it was enough." In short, Baird will sometimes take a chance on an individual defendant, says Rachele Smith, a former aide to state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos who is now president and CEO of Victim Safety First, a company that offers GPS tracking of defendants, and also works with alcohol-monitoring programs.

In November, Baird released a man on bond – contrary to the wishes of the D.A.'s office – who had threatened his wife and children with a shotgun. Baird mandated that the defendant wear both a GPS tracker and an alcohol monitor. The man has been out on bond for six months now and "hasn't missed a beat," says Smith, whose company is monitoring the man. Because he isn't in jail waiting for trial, he is actually able to support his family – even though he isn't allowed to see them, she says. "He is supporting his family, paying bills, paying for the GPS, and becoming very involved in his church." To Smith, this is a worthy goal – far better than "putting someone in jail and throwing away the key." Smith says it is clear to her that Baird does not make such decisions lightly. "He doesn't willy-nilly decide" to let people out – defendants who, quite often, are facing serious charges. "He pulls people in and says, 'Listen to this hearing; tell me honestly what you think.' There was one the other day, and I listened to the hearing, and the guy was not ready for [the GPS or alcohol-monitoring program]," she continued. "I told Baird that." And so far, says Smith, Baird's brand of "creative sentencing, like what Ronnie [Earle] is always talking about," has worked. Baird hasn't "lost" a single defendant he's placed under GPS tracking, and he's only had two defendants fail to stay off booze while on an alcohol monitor. Smith said she reported those offenders to the court, and Baird "put them in jail."

Open Warfare

In February, the simmering tension between Baird and prosecutors erupted publicly, after Baird announced he'd made a mistake in sentencing Trent Stewart to 25 years in prison. Last July 14, Stewart had walked into the City General Store on East Seventh Street, grabbed the elderly shop owner, and demanded money. Police found Stewart's wallet and a folding knife near the shop's front door; the next day, Stewart turned himself in to police, saying he'd robbed the place to get money to pay off a drug debt. Stewart pled guilty, and on Nov. 27, Baird sentenced him to prison. But a week later, Baird contacted Assistant D.A. Amy Casner and Stew­art's defense attorney, John Butler, saying he had changed his mind. It seems that Baird mistakenly thought that Stewart had previously been sentenced to 15 years in prison in another case, when in fact he'd pulled only seven years; in that light, Baird thought that the sentence he'd handed out was excessive and not in keeping with "other sentences assessed by me in similar cases," he said later. He granted a defense motion for a new sentencing hearing.

Baird in his office at the CCA
Baird in his office at the CCA (Courtesy of Charlie Baird)

The prosecutors balked at Baird's turnaround, and Baird subsequently granted Stew­art a new trial, throwing out the previous guilty plea. The D.A.'s office was furious and quickly filed an appeal with the 3rd Court of Appeals, claiming Baird had "abused his discretion." With the case on appeal (still pending), Baird set bail for Stewart and mandated as a condition of release that he participate in the Push-Up Foundation, an East Austin substance-abuse treatment program that also offers job training. But there was a problem: The foundation required that Stewart have medical insurance, but Stewart was unable to get the insurance because he didn't have a driver's license, Social Security card, or his Veterans Identification Card – all of which were in his wallet, which was being held as evidence by the D.A.'s office. Baird contacted Casner and requested she bring Stewart's identification to court. Casner refused, defying the court, saying that she "was not going to be handing those over," because "I don't believe you have jurisdiction."

According to the prosecutors, releasing to Stewart their "evidence" would be a tragic mistake that would create a "precedent – this could apply to other evidence other than documents," attorney Steve Brittain, whom the county hired to represent Casner in the dustup, told Baird. "It could apply to physical evidence, as well." Baird sought to reassure the state that this case was "unique," that there would be no "precedential value in any other case or setting." He offered to have certified copies made of Stewart's identification and said he would not allow Stewart to contest at a later date the authenticity of the copies. The prosecutors would not budge; instead they filed a mandamus action with the 3rd Court, asking the justices to command Baird to desist. According to Hampton, who represented Stew­art in the appeal, the prosecutors had no authority to thwart Baird's attempts to enforce the terms of Stewart's bond. Amazingly, however, the 3rd Court sided with the D.A., ruling that Baird had no authority to order Stewart's ID be returned. The D.A.'s office has since shown no interest in withdrawing its appeal in the Stewart case or in trying to come to any agreement with Baird regarding Stewart's sentencing.

The conflict has infuriated many in the courthouse – not only in the D.A.'s office but many among the defense bar who believe the prosecutors have shown their true colors. "It needs to be more of a team approach," says one insider. "It's not about 'getting people off'; it's about making people better and not just running [them through] like numbers." Others defend the D.A.'s action, suggesting that Baird's general "tone" in dealing with prosecutors is the real problem. "Tone, over time, is essential to doing justice." Baird is not nice to the assistant district attorneys, some charge, because "assistant D.A.s don't make campaign contributions."

To Hampton, the Stewart incident is a clear example of the precariousness of judicial independence. He was stunned that the 3rd Court ruled as it did – though he says it fits a pattern for the higher courts that, since the Republican takeover in the Nineties, has seen justices too often rubber-stamp the positions held by prosecutors. And the Travis Co. D.A.'s resistance to Baird is just more of the same. In that way, Hampton says, it isn't so surprising that Baird is now locked in what appears to be a "power struggle" with D.A. Earle's office. "He's behaving independently of the two parties before him. They're not used to that."

Who We've Chosen

Baird has been generally low-key about the situation, and in fact seems somewhat baffled about the animosity he's encountered. "There is some hostility. And I talk to Ronnie [Earle], and we backslap and laugh and joke on the elevators, and you would think we are the best of friends; and the same thing with Rosemary [Lehmberg] and Buddy [Meyer]. Never a cross word," he says. "And then I get [into court], and I realize there is some hostility toward me on some of the stuff that they've done and the way they've reacted. And I was fearful of that, because I wanted to start out ... and get along with everybody," he continued. "Because the state ... literally ... has a half-interest in 100 percent of my docket. So, I've got to work with them." Not long ago, he says, a prosecutor approached him saying: "'Don't tell anybody I said this because I'll deny it if you do, but I really like the way you run your court, because it seems like you care a lot about people.' Well, his statement, 'I'll deny it if you say it,' tells me that there is something going on that is more hostile than I perceive."

Still, Baird says he won't change – that is, as he did on the CCA, he'll refuse to adjust his philosophy or approach in order to appease anyone before or outside his court. But he does intend to blaze a path forward. He is adamant, for example, about scheduling more jury trials – as of May 1, he already had 55 jury trials set on his court calendar, far more than any other district judge. And that is a good thing, he says; Baird would like to see as many trials on the docket as possible. "I like that, for two reasons. Number one, it gets the community directly participating in the process," he says. "If they sit there and they see an aggravated robbery case and they're called upon to assess punishment and they assess it at 10 years or 50 years or whatever, it informs my judgment on what the community feels about aggravated robbery. So, I enjoy that; I think that is positive," he continued. "The other thing is, I want them to leave the courthouse feeling confident about their criminal justice system" – to know that they are the process, he says.

For Baird, everything else – the political tension, often expressed through the rolling eyes and heavy sighs of assistant district attorneys who clearly find him "difficult" to deal with – is unimportant; he shows up, pays attention, and tries to do the best he can. Baird's political situation worries many of his defenders in the courthouse, who are concerned that he'll face a tough re-election campaign in 2010 if he doesn't make nice with the D.A.'s office.

Baird says he isn't worried. "Maybe I should be," he says. "I feel certain that I'll have opposition" in the next election. "I don't know where it will come from; I would think maybe from the D.A.'s office, but that's OK," he continued. "You're elected to these positions; you're not anointed. So, if somebody looks and says they can do a better job than me, that's fine. I'll put my record up there, because I can articulate what I'm doing; I can explain it. And the truth is, I make mistakes. But I'm pretty honest about admitting it when I make a mistake. I don't believe in hiding behind it. I'll just go in and admit it." Indeed, it was his conviction that he'd made a mistake in the Stewart case – and his rare judicial willingness to both acknowledge it and to fix it – that got him legally crossways with the D.A.'s office and publicly under the media gun.

Baird's defenders take the situation personally. "Do your job," says one courthouse insider. "Argue [your] side; help the judge make the best decisions for the community. He's the one we're charging to run it. Sometimes, when the [prosecutors] are disrespectful and confrontational, I feel like they're being that way to us, the voters. Baird is us. He is who we've chosen."  

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Travis County Courts, Charlie Baird, Keith Hampton, Jon Wisser, Ronnie Earle, Court of Criminal Appeals, Sharon Keller, Buddy Meyer

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