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Is There Discrimination in District Court?

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…Ask William Flowers
by Marene Gustin

In Harris County, gubernatorial and presidential elections only draw between 40 and 60 percent of registered voters—and even then, voters often vote a straight party ticket, or don’t bother voting at all in lesser races due to down-ballot fatigue. So who can be bothered with being informed about all the judicial races?

For the LGBT community, however, voting for judges can be more important than voting for higher-profile positions.

Attorney Connie Moore, of Moore & Hunt—the first woman-owned boutique law firm in Houston to concentrate on LGBT issues—believes it’s more important to pick judicial candidates than gubernatorial ones, because judges have a greater impact on family issues.

“Absolutely, it is very clear that there are antigay vibes in family court in Harris County,” Moore said. “Not from every judge, but there is from some.”

A case in point is the current plight of William Flowers.

Flowers, like many gay men, married a woman and fathered children. When he realized he needed to be true to his orientation, he divorced his wife in 2004, with both parties sharing custody of their three children. His former wife had primary custody, and Flowers says there wasn’t really a problem until he decided to try for primary custody two years ago.

As the case dragged on, Flowers and his partner, Jim Evans, legally married in Connecticut last year. This June, the custody case finally went to trial.

“I did not abuse my children,” Flowers said. “I did not abandon them, I do not do drugs. They love Jim and his children. They have a really good life when they are with us. We attend Deer Park United Methodist Church and are involved in family events there.”

But his wife, Flowers said, asked for a jury trial in the custody case, and the jury decided that she should retain primary custody of their 14-year-old son and twin 9-year-old girls. But it’s what happened after the decision that shocked him and the community.

The Hon. Charley E. Prine Jr., an associate judge for the 309th District Court, and a former Regional Political Director of the Republican National Committee, issued a ruling stating that Flowers could not leave his children alone with any male to whom the kids are not related by “blood or adoption.”

It further reduced the amount of time Flowers could spend with his children, gave the mother exclusive rights to move the children wherever she chose without notifying the father, and reduced his educational and medical access.

That means his husband cannot watch the kids if he has to run out, since Texas does not recognize same-sex marriages and thus doesn’t consider Evans to be related. Nor can he leave them with a male babysitter, or any other nonrelated male.

Judge Prine could have issued a paramour restriction, often applied in custody cases, that prohibits a nonmarital sexual partner from being present during visits. But even then, without allegations of abuse, it could be overturned.

Last year the American Civil Liberties Union helped overturn the restriction in the case of a lesbian couple. In Chandler v. Barker, a Tennessee Court of Appeals unanimously held that the trial court had abused its discretion in imposing the paramour restriction. In reversing the trial court’s decision, the court noted that there was absolutely no evidence that the paramour restriction served the best interests of the children.

But Prine didn’t do that; instead he imposed restrictions on Flowers without imposing any sort of paramour restrictions on his wife, who has not remarried. Judge Prine’s office did not return calls at press time, and because it is an ongoing case, it’s likely he would not be able to comment anyway. But based on previous cases involving gay custody rights, the rendition seems oppressive, if not downright antigay.

“There was one point during the trial when the judge actually laughed at an antigay comment,” Flowers said. “Yes, I think this is an antigay ruling, there is no other way to look at it. These are the kind of restrictions people get when they leave their children on the side of the road.”

Flowers is planning to appeal and has reached out to friends and family for financial aid, saying that both he and his husband have exhausted their savings and credit on legal expenses. But even if he does raise the money he needs, it may still depend on the luck of the draw regarding which judge hears the case.

“I’ll never change the religious beliefs of some judges,” said Moore. “I’m not even going to try. But legally, they are not supposed to discriminate against gays and lesbians.”

And as Flowers added: “This fight isn’t just about William Flowers and his children, it’s about every single gay parent.”

Flowers is turning to the community for assistance. If you would like to contribute to Flowers’s legal fund, make your checks out to Flowers’s attorney, Stephanie Proffitt. Mail to: Stephanie Proffitt,  917 Franklin, Suite 100,  Houston, TX 77002.

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Marene Gustin

Marene Gustin has written about Texas culture, food, fashion, the arts, and Lone Star politics and crime for television, magazines, the web and newspapers nationwide, and worked in Houston politics for six years. Her freelance work has appeared in the Austin Chronicle, Austin-American Statesman, Houston Chronicle, Houston Press, Texas Monthly, Dance International, Dance Magazine, the Advocate, Prime Living, InTown magazine, OutSmart magazine and web sites CultureMap Houston and Austin, Eater Houston and Gayot.com, among others.

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