Out on the Bench

Municipal Judge Barbara Hartle is the only out lesbian member of the Texas judiciary .

By Brandon Wolf  • Photo by Brandon Wolf

Municipal Court Judge Barbara Hartle

I’m still overwhelmed when I first enter a courtroom, and everyone rises,” says Houston Municipal Court Judge Barbara Hartle. The only out lesbian member of the Texas judiciary, 50-year-old Hartle has been sitting on the bench since her appointment in 2006. She moved to Houston in 2002 from Austin.

At the time of her appointment, she says, no one in the GLBT community knew of her presence in Houston. She had been busy with a new job and settling in. “I didn’t have time to get involved with the GLBT community here like I had in Austin.” When Presiding Judge Berta Mejia introduced Hartle at her swearing-in ceremony, Mejia acknowledged Hartle’s partner, Vallarie Fisher. “No one in that audience was more surprised than fellow judge Steve Kirkland,” she says. “So were City Controller Annise Parker and City Council member Sue Lovell. Annise and her partner, Kathy Hubbard, quickly organized a welcoming party at their home, so that I could meet local GLBT leaders.”

From Military Brat to Attorney

“I was born on the grounds of the Annapolis Naval Base,” Hartle says. “I was one of six children.” She graduated from high school in Ohio and then moved to Austin to attend the University of Texas.

“I earned a degree in social work, but Ronald Reagan had recently been elected, and there were no longer jobs in social work,” she recalls. “So I went to work as a corrections officer, and my first captain was Margo Fraiser, who went on to become the sheriff of Travis County. The majority of female corrections officers were lesbian, so I never felt closeted.”

After being promoted to sergeant, Hartle decided to earn a peace officer certification. She worked at the city jail in Austin, where she was responsible for transporting prisoners to and from the jail. “I was a uniformed deputy sheriff. I handled the paperwork required and worked with people posting bond. Those were interesting times, but I tired of shift work—the 11-to-7 shift was particularly hard—so I became an adult probation officer.”

In 1996, in her mid 30s, Hartle made the decision to move to San Antonio and attend law school. “My parents had a home there and I lived with them. I finished law school and found a job as a prosecutor for the Austin Municipal Court.”

Austin was close enough that she could keep watch over her elderly parents. But after her mother’s death, her father re-married. “I no longer had a reason to stay in Austin,” she says. “My partner’s daughter, who lived in Houston, now had two children. We wanted to watch them grow up, so we sold our home, packed the car, and moved here along with my partner’s father. We sort of looked like the Beverly Hillbillies,” she says, laughing at the memory.

Municipal Court Appointment

“I first found a job in Huntsville, but after five months of commuting, I knew that wasn’t going to work,” Hartle says. She then took a position with the State of Texas working in elder law. “I work with the elder population and their specific legal needs. This has become a very popular field because of all the aging Baby Boomers.”

When Mayor Bill White was looking for part-time municipal judges in 2006, he sent letters to members of the Association of Women Attorneys in this area.

“I was a member of that group,” Hartle says, “so I applied and was selected for a part-time appointment.” She was first appointed in March 2006, and then re-appointed in December 2008.

Municipal judges sit for misdemeanor cases, situations where citizens are fined but are not sentenced to jail—traffic violations, public intoxication, dog barking. There are currently about 22 full-time and 40 part-time municipal judges who report to Presiding Judge Berta Mejia. “I work two nights a week, from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m.,” Hartle explains. “I sometimes take cases in the courtroom at the jail, but usually I am in the downtown location. I have a very active walk-in court, mostly for people who have missed their court dates and are the subjects of outstanding warrants. . . . Most people will deal with a municipal court because of traffic cases,” she notes.

How can citizens stay out of traffic court? Hartle smiles and advises, “Slow down. Most traffic violations are for speeding. Usually drivers deny it and most often say they were just going with the flow of the traffic. But we are all human, and sooner or later we all get popped. I was once ticketed for speeding, as I was coming down a hill,” she chuckles. “I denied it, but the officer wouldn’t listen!”

She stresses the importance of keeping auto insurance current. “The State of Texas imposes a large surcharge if you let it lapse,” she warns.

The Integrity of the Legal System

Hartle says that a good judge must have knowledge of the law and be able to show fairness to both sides in a case. “And they must have integrity,” she adds.

“There are so many bad jokes about lawyers,” she says wistfully. “Some lawyers don’t tell the truth, and they can taint the whole field. But most people who represent clients in municipal court care about their clients. They aren’t making big bucks. They do what they do to help people who don’t have much money and could lose their driver’s licenses.”

Hartle says that she sometimes catches attorneys making dishonest statements. “I get angry with them. I let them know that they are bringing down the whole field. It’s like 10 steps backwards, and the rest of us have to show that this is not representative of the whole legal system. But lack of integrity isn’t widespread. If it was, the system would already have stopped working.”

For people who feel cynicism about the judicial process, Hartle says the remedy is the same as that for GLBTs who aren’t respected. “You should get to know people in the legal field and see that they are genuine, honest, and hardworking people.”

Hartle likes being a judge because she likes working with people, she says. “It’s the interaction. I learn from other people every day. And at the end of the evening, people often thank me for ensuring that they get their share of justice.”

Grandchildren Ride in Pride Parade

Hartle and partner Vallarie Fisher met at church in Austin in 1993, and they have been in a relationship for 14 years. Hartle has no children, but 68-year-old Fisher has two. Though Fisher’s daughter, Tara, is also a lesbian, it was not something Fisher knew or even guessed, until Tara chose to come out. Sadly, Fisher’s other child, a son, has turned his back on both his sister and his mother.

Tara and her partner, Kim, have a son and a daughter, Dylan and Kyra, both from artificial insemination, using the same anonymous sperm donor. Hartle says that the children are popular and active. “We go to a lot of athletic games and other activities to watch them participate. They are comfortable at school; several other children also have same-sex parents.

“The children know that they have two mommies and three grandmas,” says Hartle. “I’m Grandma Barb—GB for short.” Although Hartle grew up Catholic, her Houston family attends Unity Church. “It’s warm, accepting, and positive,” she says. “When children are surrounded by lots of love in the home, the gender of the people giving it isn’t important.”

Hartle’s and Fisher’s grandchildren enjoy coming to her courtroom and watching her preside as judge, she says. “They also love to ride in a convertible in the annual Houston Pride Parade. In 2006, 2007, and 2008, I’ve marched with fellow out-and-proud judges Steve Kirkland and the late John Paul Barnich. . . . I’m blessed that my family—brothers and sisters and nephews and nieces—are all very accepting,” says Hartle. “Even my father, who at first struggled, is now accepting.”

Hartle feels that it is important for gays to be out, to be true to themselves and not to hide. “Being gay has no impact on my being wise and fair on the bench,” she says. “And like many attorneys, if I am filling out a form and it isn’t comprehensive, I add in an extra line and make it so—under marital status, I usually add the classification ‘partnered.’”

How the Judicial System Impacts GLBTs

The Supreme Court’s 6-3 decision in Lawrence v. Texas, the famous Houston sodomy case in 2003, surprised her, Hartle says. “But it was about time. How much more would it have taken?”

Reflecting on California’s Proposition 8, she says, “The law as it is written does not say ‘except gay and lesbian people.’ We all have the right to pursue happiness, but that doesn’t seem to be happening for us in this country. More and more, brave gay and lesbian people will challenge this in the nation’s courtrooms, and landmark cases will change people’s attitudes. I am especially interested in Melissa Etheridge’s challenge that she will not pay state taxes in California because she cannot fully partake of the state’s privileges.”

About the United States Supreme Court, Hartle says, “It’s not very representative. Let’s hope certain members decide to retire.” Asked if there are viable gay jurists who would make good nominees, she pauses for a few moments and then says brightly, “Steve Kirkland! Let’s call Barack.”

As for herself, Hartle says, “The Supreme Court jurists are really a bit distant—they work mostly with the lawyers, not the people being represented. I prefer to work with people.” But would she accept the call if nominated? “Oh, sure,” she says. Then a big smile crosses her face as she adds, “I’ve never hired a nanny, and I’ve always paid all my taxes, too!”

Brandon Wolf is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine. Wolf also profiled Judge Steven Kirkland for this issue.

see also: The Verdict is Favorable and In the Beginning

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Brandon Wolf

Brandon Wolf is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.

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