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An Interview with the Honorable Judge Steven Kirkland

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What is behind the wedge splitting the Harris County Democratic Party

by Michelle Risher

Judge Steven Kirkland of the Harris County 215th Civil District Court is caught between the fire and the frying pan in his reelection bid. In the Democratic primary, a personal injury attorney is gunning for him by finding and funding an opponent to run against him. Additionally, a Tea Party favorite has joined in funding and supporting the same candidate in what looks like an act torn from the anti-LGBT National Organization for Marriage (NOM) script to drive a wedge between the LGBT and African-American communities by fomenting discord and distrust.

When Judge Kirkland ruled against Houston attorney George Fleming last year, he became the object of Fleming’s vengeance. Fleming, and Fleming & Associates LLP, were sued by former clients they had litigated for in a FenPhen suit over the $41 million in fees Fleming’s firm collected after winning a settlement against the manufacturer, Wyeth. According to the Courthouse News Service, Fleming’s clients were charged about 54% of the total recovery as fees and expenses, and the plaintiffs claimed that they were defrauded by Fleming “keeping millions of dollars in inflated fees for postage, copies, court costs, court reporters, experts, research, travel, and interest from banks that financed his firm’s activities.” Kirkland’s ruling could cost Fleming millions.

Houston Chronicle reporter Patricia Kilday Hart wrote that Debra Norris, a Houston attorney, received a call last October from political consultant Justin Jordan. He told Norris that if she would run against Kirkland, Fleming would provide adequate campaign funding. Norris met with Jordan and political consultant Bethel Nathan who told her, “We have funding. We’re looking for the right candidate and you are it.” Norris declined when she learned that Kirkland “is an outstanding judge.”

Nathan, who has worked for the Republican National Committee, and Jordan, who is Republican Precinct 76 Chair, are both African-American, as is Kirkland’s ostensibly Democratic challenger, Elaine Palmer. Palmer has been heavily funded by Fleming and three out-of-state personal injury lawyers who also litigate Fen Phen claims. These out-of-state attorneys have no readily discernable ties to Fleming, Palmer, or the Houston legal community, but have nevertheless contributed $30,000 to Palmer’s campaign out of the goodness of their hearts.

Fleming and his firm contributed a total of $35,000, and his self-funded PAC, Texans for Good Leaders, added another $23,000. Throw in the $2,000 from “Texas Hammer” Jim Adler, $5,000 from Cliff Roberts, and the Holman Law Firm’s attempted initial contribution of $35,000—$30,000 of which had to be returned along with another $2,000 from Fleming—and a cynic might infer they were trying to buy themselves a judge. The most mysterious contribution of all, though, was $5,000 from Republican Tea Party operative Paul Kubosh, who also funded Tea Party councilwoman Helena Brown.

Kubosh is also a major source of funds for Keryl Douglas, who is running against openly gay Lane Lewis for the Harris County Democratic Party (HCDP) Chair. Kubosh has of late been meddling in the affairs of the Harris County Democratic Party even though he is a lifelong Republican whose brothers, Michael and Randy, are the former Harris County Republican Party Finance Committee Chairman and the Precinct 2 Chair and Republican Hispanic Citizens in Action treasurer, respectively.

Michael Kubosh was prominently in attendance at the Keryl Douglas press conference where she refuted a “Ministers for Keryl” email and said, “Numerous libelous and slanderous statements have been made associating the [ministers’ email] with me or my campaign. Such conduct is not only malicious but actionable under the law.”

Not that it bears any scrutiny, but Michael Kubosh has already endorsed Ken Shortreed, the Republican candidate for 215th judge. Kubosh ran as a Republican for Constable in Matagorda County in 1988, and last December told David Jennings of Big Jolly Politics that he was “seriously considering running” for the newly created 34th Congressional District seat—as a Republican—and had already filled out the paperwork. Brother Randy Kubosh is president of the Downtown Houston Pachyderms, for which Shortreed is the chaplain.

In both the Kirkland-Palmer race and the Lewis-Douglas races, there is evidence of race-baiting found in the Rev. Willie J. Howard’s Ministers for Keryl email, and in an email from a Christopher Nielsen. No one has been able to establish that either of these two individuals actually exists, and everyone denies a part in sending them. The effect has been mistrust, inflamed emotions, and a lot of finger-pointing between two crucial constituencies of the Democratic Party—with Paul Kubosh always right there to commentate.

Meanwhile, candidate Palmer is placing robocall after robocall about Kirkland’s DWI arrests of 30 years ago, reporting them as if they were current events. Palmer has stooped so low as to robocall using a woman named Elizabeth to talk about her daughter and 8-year-old son who were killed by a drunk driver, which she then turns in to another Kirkland drunk-driving call. Paul Kubosh published Kirkland’s case summary information (QCAS) records, dating back 28 and 30 years ago, on Charles Kuffner’s Off the Kuff Endorsement Watch the same day that Kuffner endorsed Kirkland.

The Palmer campaign reached a new low today sending out a letter-size mailer that says “When it comes to drunk driving, you be the judge…and say no to Steve Kirkland.” The opposite side contains copies of the court cases, with the dates omitted, and misleadingly shows Kirkland holding a goblet of clear liquid under a caption of “April 2012.” The liquid is clear and could be either water or club soda, but it obviously meant to mislead the reader. It also provides drunk-driving “facts” from Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), but the attribution is placed in white at the bottom above the paid political ad statement so that it looks as if it were MADD was endorsing Palmer.

In a 2009 OutSmart interview, Judge Kirkland talked openly about the alcohol problem he resolved many years ago. He recently responded to the robocall accusations with a Facebook comment. With humility, he wrote, “On May 17, I will celebrate my 28th year without alcohol. While I have never been shy in talking about being a recovering alcoholic, I usually mark this date quietly with my family and the folks who’ve helped me stay sober over these years. But this year, I feel I must be more public in acknowledging the date. Both for me and for those who need to hear it.” People in recovery deserve compassion and respect, not public derision and humiliation.

On her Facebook page, Elaine Palmer makes a comment regarding Kirkland’s ratings on the Houston Bar Association annual poll that evaluates attorneys: “And, my opponent says on his website in the May 2011 Houston Bar Association poll, he had a 73% favorable view of his Courtroom. When I was in school, 73% was a “D,” and nothing to brag about.” Actually, 75% thought him “qualified or well qualified,” while only 29% rated Palmer “qualified or well qualified,” and the other 71% thought her “not qualified.” By those scores, Kirkland is everything his opponent is not.

In addition, in 2008 Palmer was reprimanded by the State Bar of Texas for failure to comply with a client’s request for information and failure to file a lawsuit on behalf of the complainant prior to expiration of the statute of limitations. Kirkland has no reprimands.

Edmund Burke opined, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” When we don’t vote, we not only forfeit our rights, but also the rights of others. And, we deny office to well-qualified women and men who have a genuine desire to serve the people and protect our constitutional rights.

We have a devoted, intelligent, compassionate, and forward-thinking judge in Steven Kirkland, who just happens to be a member of the LGBT community and is also the best and the most qualified candidate for the 215th Civil District Court. Let’s get out the vote for him. Tell the Kubosh brothers they are not free to bring the Tea Party to the Democratic Party.

  • Elections Early Voting Schedule : May 14-May 25
  • Democratic Party Primary Election Day is Tuesday, May 29, 2012
  • For locations visit: Harris County Democratic Party at http://www.hcdp.org/

To learn more about Judge Kirkland, please read the following reprint of his 2009 OutSmart interview.

 

Steven Kirkland is Harris County’s first out elected jurist.

By Brandon Wolf • Photos by Pam Francis

This interview was originally published in OutSmart’s March 2009 issue.

 

OutSmartMarch2009Cover“Lawyers find answers for clients, judges find answers for society,” says newly elected Judge Steven Kirkland. A ballot victory last November has now put Kirkland in a position to find those answers for society. He also holds the distinction of being the first and only out-and-proud elected jurist in Harris County.

“I want to be a judge because I’ve always believed in justice,” Kirkland told OutSmart in a recent interview. “All my life I’ve stood up for what is right. I’ve told people what is wrong, and I’ve tried to change it.”

The 48-year-old Kirkland is a man of transparency who talks with equal ease about his male partner of 22 years, his recovery from alcoholism, and his passion for the judicial process. He comfortably blends a wry sense of humor with a deep understanding of law.

Kirkland
Steven Kirkland

The son of a truck driver, Kirkland was born and reared in Abilene, Texas. “I got out as fast as I could,” he remembers. “I came to Houston and enrolled at Rice University. I picked a major, completed my coursework, and graduated with a bachelor of arts degree. I was quite involved in politics at Rice, but I was also an active alcoholic. I didn’t have a grip on my sexuality or my addiction.”

Participation in a twelve-step recovery program helped Kirkland get control of his alcoholism. “I have a genetic predisposition to addiction,” he says. “There is lots of it on both sides of the family. All of my brothers are addicts of some sort and are at various points of recovery.

“I had to get my triggers under control,” he reflects. “Being gay was a trigger for the disease. I had to get a grip on my sexuality before I could get a grip on my alcoholism. At age 23 I came out to my aunt and then to my parents. It was one of those late-night sobbing things at the kitchen table.”

Kirkland sobered up, started law school, and went to work as a paralegal for the now-defunct Texaco Corporation. He attended night school at the University of Houston’s Law Center and graduated with cum laude honors. Following graduation, Texaco promoted him to environmental litigator. He held that position for eight years, until a merger made his position redundant.

For the next few years, he worked as a plaintiff’s attorney for Harris County residents filing air pollution lawsuits. “This is not a good jurisdiction for plaintiffs,” he notes. “We weren’t able to be as successful as citizens needed us to be. But we got what we got at the time.”

Kirkland actively entered local politics when his friend Annise Parker asked him to manage her city council campaigns in 1991 and 1995. “Neither campaign was successful,” he states, “but we laid the groundwork for her 1997 victory.” Parker has since served three terms as a Houston City Council member and three terms as City Controller. She is currently a candidate in the Houston mayoral contest.

Kirkland’s path to the judiciary was paved in 2001, when his name was submitted to Mayor Lee Brown for consideration as a municipal judge. He was appointed to a part-time position, and later appointed as a full-time judge, then re-appointed by Mayor Bill White.

Campaigning for Elected Office

In late 2007, Kirkland announced his candidacy for the 215th District Civil Court. He won the Democratic primary against opponent Fred Cook in the spring of 2008. He then faced the challenge of running against 10-year incumbent Levi Benton, an African-American Republican.

No one ever asked about his sexual orientation during candidate forums, Kirkland says, “but there was probably a whisper campaign. I heard one report that a comment was made at a local meeting of the Greater Houston Pachyderm Club about ‘a guy who is running for office who’s never been married.’”

Kirkland neither shied away from nor made a point of his sexual orientation during the campaign. “When I walk into a gay fundraiser and kiss men hello, I don’t really have to talk about it,” he says. “However I did mention being gay when I was emphasizing the diversity of the Democratic ticket.”

Besides his personal qualifications for the job, Kirkland points out other factors that helped elect him last November. “George Bush’s unpopularity and Barack Obama’s popularity were important,” he says. “The Republican brand was tarnished both nationally and locally. And many voters detected a sense of entitlement on the part of some local Republican judges.”

On the evening of November 4, 2008, Kirkland led his opponent with 51.3 percent of the vote. As an openly gay candidate for judge, Kirkland also made history for the Houston GLBT community that night.

On January 1, 2009, Kirkland took the oath of office with his fellow judges-elect during a brief, quiet ceremony at the South Texas College of Law. On January 15, 2009, his investiture ceremony, the judicial equivalent of an inauguration, was held in the ceremonial courtroom of the Civil Courthouse.

Addressing those who gathered to celebrate, Kirkland declared, “We don’t make these journeys alone, and I would like to acknowledge a number of folks who have helped and supported me along the way. First is my life-partner, Mark. Mark is both my anchor and barometer, lifting me up and keeping me humble at the same time. He’s put up with many strange side trips in our journey together and many impositions, including attending and participating in this event on this, our 22nd anniversary.”

Houston’s Openly Gay Civil Court Judge

As a Texas District Civil Court Judge, Kirkland works with property-damage issues, personal-injury claims, breach-of-contract disputes, and other individual civil matters. He also presides over environmental litigation and suits between corporations. Kirkland feels that a judge needs to listen, to have a breadth of knowledge of the law, to be decisive, to be compassionate, and to be humble. For young people interested in a judicial career, he advises that they go to school, study hard, be connected, learn how to relate to people, exhibit interest in the judiciary, and work internships.

Asked how he likes being a judge, Kirkland responds, “It’s fun! I get to hear lots of stories and see the world through the different perspectives of many others.

“It’s a great intellectual challenge. That challenge is very stimulating, and when I meet it, it’s very rewarding.”

The Importance of Law

“The justice system serves public safety,” Kirkland says. “Our society has a place and a process to work out disputes, rather than fighting in the streets. I don’t judge people; I judge their actions and behavior. In my drinking days I violated the law and I was punished. We all make mistakes, but we can be bigger than our mistakes and get beyond them.”

Kirkland says that there is good reason to respect the judicial system. “One must understand that justice is a process. A lot of people are involved that bring the whole process together. It can take several years of work for some decisions. Even if one can’t appreciate a particular decision, they can appreciate the process.

“Broad-stroke criticisms usually don’t take into account the context of a decision,” Kirkland warns. “Don’t listen to Rush Limbaugh—or to a liberal equivalent. Evaluate what is really happening. Don’t just have a knee-jerk reaction.”

Kirkland dismisses the characterization of “activist judges” as partisan criticism. “A judge is only an activist if the ox being gored is one’s own,” he says dryly.

To Kill a Mockingbird is the only courtroom movie that Kirkland has ever seen. “The dramatics in courtroom movies are only for entertainment—a real courtroom is not that exciting,” he says. “Then again, sometimes it’s more exciting!”

Kirkland is not a fan of TV court coverage. “Television in a courtroom is a bad idea,” he says. “It affects how people behave. It impacts justice.”

He is a fan of the jury system and has great faith in it. “There may be people on juries who don’t listen to what the judge tells them to do,” he says, “but there is always someone on a jury who does, and they police the process.”

Supreme Court Justices Frankfurter, Cardoza, and Marshall are three famous jurists he admires. “I also admire the men who decided the Brown v. Board of Education suit,” he adds. “There are many great people who have been a part of judicial history.”

Gay Rights and the Law

“Gays need to be in every walk of life,” Kirkland asserts. “It’s important to be who we are wherever we are, then other people can learn to relate to us. Some people connect with me because I’m gay, others connect with me because I’m a recovered alcoholic. Or perhaps it’s just that I’m a Democrat. I put it all out there for people to decide.

“Being gay doesn’t have to hold a person back,” Kirkland says, “but it used to hold people back.” He remembers two distinct incidents from his campaign. “One young lawyer told me he wanted to run for a judgeship someday but was concerned because he was gay. Another man asked to be removed from my petition for candidacy when he found out I was gay. In both cases, people took the gay issue and limited lives. Until we get lots of gay people who are out in the open, this will continue.”

Kirkland looks at the United States Supreme Court and doesn’t see diversity. “We will change it,” he says with optimism, “but not overnight.” Will a future Supreme Court nominee be gay? Kirkland says there are good gay candidates that might be considered. “I know of a federal judge in Florida and a Supreme Court judge in Oregon,” he notes.

Would he answer a call to serve on the Court, if President Obama phoned and asked? “I’m available!” he says with a broad smile.

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

WHAT THEY’RE SAYING

Longtime Houston activist Ray Hill feels a great sense of pride in Kirkland’s win. “When I began organizing for GLBT equality in 1966, the issue was one of criminal law because we could be sent to prison. Forty-three years later in 2003, that law was declared void when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Texas 21.06 sodomy statute. The election of Steve Kirkland to a district court in Harris County is just one indication of how far we have come in less than a generation.”

• • •

Local gay attorney Mitchell Katine reflects on his own years of practicing civil law. “As an attorney who has practiced in the Harris County Civil District Courts for over 20 years, it is exciting that the citizens of Harris County have finally been able to focus on the merits and abilities of a judicial candidate, such as Judge Steven Kirkland, instead of who the candidate loves or wants to share his or her life with. Judge Kirkland will be an excellent example of a fine judge who also happens to be gay. Judge Kirkland has broken the GLBT barrier in Harris County’s civil judiciary. He is the first of many GLBT judges who will follow in his footsteps for many years to come. GLBT issues rarely come up in the courtroom, but with more and more GLBT individuals coming out, it is more likely that the sexual identity of the parties will play a role in some litigation, and Judge Kirkland will be very equipped to handle them with understanding, sensitivity, and good judgment.”

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