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American-Statesman - "Statewide judge race raises heat"

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American-Statesman - "Statewide judge race raises heat"

The little-known but influential Texas Court of Criminal Appeals will have only one contested primary in March, but the Republican clash is generating enough heat to make it a must-watch race.

Incumbent Judge Paul Womack, considered one of the court's more intellectual judges, is seeking a third six-year term after backing away from earlier statements that he would retire this year.

Elena Grothe
(enlarge photo)

Robert Francis says Womack produces less than his peers.

Rebecca McEntee
(enlarge photo)

Paul Womack says teaching enhances job performance.


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He is being challenged by Robert Francis, a state district judge in Dallas who says Womack is ripe for defeat because he was fined $20,500 by the Texas Ethics Commission and sanctioned by a judicial ethics agency for failing to file seven campaign finance reports during the 2002 elections.

At the time, Womack blamed the lapse on attention-deficit disorder and a problem with procrastination. That explanation — made in a 2003 closed-door session of the State Commission on Judicial Conduct but revealed when the agency issued its sanction — was not widely discussed at the time beyond a few newspaper articles and Internet forums used by lawyers.

Francis, however, said the episode raises questions about Womack's continued tenure on the state's highest criminal court.

"I don't know if he's resolved those" personal issues, Francis said. "But there are some changes that need to be made in that spot, for sure."

In a recent interview, Womack said subsequent testing showed that he did not have adult attention-deficit disorder, which is frequently marked by impulsiveness, inattention, procrastination and difficulty planning and organizing, according to the National Institutes of Health.

"I think the correct thing to say is that I just messed that up. I just simply failed to file the reports, and it was a mistake," Womack said. "That ADD thing was being investigated by my (doctor). That was suggested as a possible cause for what happened, but I think that didn't pan out."

Francis questioned whether Womack continues to suffer from procrastination problems, noting the judge writes fewer signed opinions than do the other eight members of the court.

Francis also suggested that Womack's teaching duties at the University of Texas School of Law might be to blame for the lack of production.

"I think part of the reason is three days a week he doesn't work there; he goes to teach school. I think if the people of Texas pay you, you ought to be there every day," said Francis, who is making his second bid to join the Austin-based court after unsuccessfully challenging incumbent Judge Charles Holcomb in the 2006 GOP primary.

Court records show Womack wrote the fewest signed opinions, 50, from 2004 to 2007. The other eight members of the court averaged 78 opinions in the same period.

"Whether an opinion is signed or not is not a good indication of how much work is being done," Womack said. "I am current in my work and do my fair share of the work."

Womack said his course on Texas criminal procedure enhances his ability to do his job.

"It allows me to look at (the law) from an academic point of view to see the big picture, the development of the law," he said. "Also, I think I manage to make up for those three hours" per week.

He added that Francis should think twice about lobbing accusations about campaign irregularities. After the 2006 election, Francis was hit with a $700 ethics commission fine for failing to properly list campaign expenditures on a year-end report.

The pointed back-and-forth is relatively rare for a judicial primary, but it's likely to sharpen in the general election as debate focuses on the court's damaged reputation, particularly after September's execution of killer Michael Richard.

Presiding Judge Sharon Keller refused to accept Richard's appeal after the court's 5 p.m. closing time and didn't inform other judges of the decision, raising questions about the court's priorities and possible communication problems on the all-Republican panel.

Womack said Richard's lawyers, who requested extra time to file the appeal because of computer problems, should have been accommodated.

"The court should've received that petition as long as he was alive and able to bring it," Womack said. "Nobody's ever told me about 5 o'clock deadlines."

Francis said the Richard matter reveals chemistry problems on the court.

"I think I'll bring a new personality and dynamic to it," he said. "I think there needs to be a higher degree of collegiality."

In the last six months of 2007, Francis reported raising almost $44,800 in campaign donations. In a race that has traditionally favored the incumbent, Womack raised $103 in the same period.

The GOP primary winner will face Democrat J.R. Molina, a 36-year Fort Worth lawyer who devoted little time to campaigning when he challenged Keller in 2006. Keller won the race 57 percent to 43 percent.

Molina also ran unsuccessfully for the court in 2004 and 2002.

Two other court seats also are up for election:

• Judge Tom Price avoided a primary opponent when he successfully challenged the candidacy paperwork filed by Bill White, a retired Bexar County Court-at-Law judge. State GOP officials ruled that White's filing lacked the necessary number of valid signatures.

Price, first elected to the court in 1996, will face Democrat Susan Strawn, a 19-year lawyer from Houston, in November.

• Judge Cathy Cochran, who joined the court in 2001, does not have a Republican or Democratic challenger for her Place 9 seat.

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