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Running Houston’s Municipal Courts with a Strong but Sensitive Hand

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Openly gay judge Barbara Hartle is the presiding judge of Texas’ largest court system, which handles the nation’s third-largest caseload.
By Brandon Wolf  

When former mayor Annise Parker needed to fill the position of presiding judge of the Houston Municipal Courts in 2010, Judge Barbara Hartle was surprised to be invited for an interview. “I hadn’t applied,” she says. “I had been on the municipal bench since 2006, and thought the job should go to someone with more years than me.”

Hartle’s colleague, the late Judge Herbert Gee, didn’t see it that way, and nominated Hartle for the job. Hartle ended up receiving the nod, and became the head of Houston’s municipal court system.

Parker says, “I wasn’t trying to make a statement. Barbara struck me as clearly the most qualified person for the job.” And there was more to come for Hartle, when Parker decided to combine the judicial and operational functions of the court system into one group and place it all under Hartle’s management.

Hitting the Ground Running

Hartle’s workload and responsibilities increased rapidly, but she is a woman who enjoys a challenge. The biggest task facing her was the implementation of a new computer system for the municipal courts.

Years before, when the courts migrated from paper to computer, the software that had been purchased was not user-friendly, requiring judges to know a large array of cryptic codes. At times, judges were left stranded with a packed courtroom and no way to proceed until help showed up to resolve a system issue.

Under mayor Bill White, the decision was made to design an intuitive in-house system from scratch to truly meet the court system’s needs. The system was named CSMART (Court System Management and Resource Technology).

The City’s New System

Judge Barbara Hartle
Judge Barbara Hartle

It took more than five years to develop it to the point that Hartle felt comfortable implementing it. “This is a system of judicial record,” she says. “We wanted to be sure we had it right.” The changeover occurred in 2015, and the new system gets high marks from all the stakeholders.

The system has to interface with countless other legal entities—the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles, the Houston Police Department, the Texas Department of Public Safety, the Texas State Office of Court Administration, the City of Houston’s accounting system, and others. The system also handles the huge task of scheduling all the courtrooms where cases will be heard.

One notable efficiency of the new system is that police officers can check in by smartphone at their subpoenaed time, and don’t have to physically appear until a case is ready for trial. Trials are scheduled at court locations near where the officer works, so that they don’t always have to drive downtown. This puts officers back onto their beats for many more hours than would have been possible in the past.

CSMART can quickly and efficiently capture data summaries that once would have taken days by hand. A judge can quickly check to see if someone standing before them is a first-time offender or a habitual offender. If the city is sued for improper officer conduct, the system can analyze trends in their ticketing behavior, such as “profiling” certain classes of citizens. Hartle says the Houston Chronicle is a frequent customer, requesting data reports for articles.

The new system is web-based, and thus accessible wherever an Internet connection exists. It has turned out to be such a unique and well-designed system that there is talk of marketing it outside of Houston at some point in the future.

Ice Machine Slime, Barking Dogs and Smoking Violations

Municipal judges sit for Class C misdemeanor cases and ordinance violations—situations where citizens are fined but not sentenced to jail. Hartle manages 21 full-time judges and 45 part-time associate judges. The Houston caseload is the third-highest in the nation, with only Los Angeles and Miami having greater volumes.

The municipal courts do a lot more than just traffic cases, although 75 percent of their cases are traffic-related. They also deal with all permit violations (food service standards, signage that does not comply with city code, overgrown yards that are health hazards, and animal behavior such as excessive barking or running unleashed in public spaces).

The court also handles parking tickets and a wide assortment of other civil violations, such as smoking at a bus stop or within 100 feet of a hospital. The oddest infraction judges can remember was a man who affixed mirrors to his shoes so he could peer up women’s dresses while waiting in lines to board city busses.

Probably the toughest decision a municipal judge must make is ordering a dangerous dog that has inflicted damage to be put down. “There are extra security guards in the courtrooms when judges announce those decisions,” Hartle says.

It’s easy to say, “There ought to be a law!” But every new law and ordinance has to be put into CSMART. In addition, each year fines are reviewed and sometimes revised. All of this has to become part of CSMART. “It’s where law and business rules come together to create an intuitive system,” says Hartle.

Municipal court judges are sometimes dismissed as not being ‘real judges’. But the reality is they bear the highest caseloads. Most people will only come before a judge once in their lifetime. And that judge will probably a municipal judge. For this reason, Hartle wants the municipal courts to have a high bar—and leave citizens with a good impression of the legal system.

Praise for Hartle’s Dedication and Compassion 

“If you don’t like people, and you don’t like to listen, you won’t be a good municipal judge,” Hartle says. “This is not a glamorous job, and it has big dockets of cases and lots of unhappy people.”

But Hartle sees the job as a way of helping people. In a big village like Houston, we all have to learn to get along, and certain rules are necessary. Hartle’s goal is not punishment, but to help citizens understand that compliance is a duty that may limit each of us in some ways, but in the bigger picture protects us all.

Judge Phyllis Frye, the first transgender municipal judge, says: “Judge Hartle is excellent in her position. As an associate under her administration for almost six years, I have been amazed at how proficient she is in running the municipal courts.  She delegates, she cares about staff, she is innovative, and she listens to both suggestions and complaints.”

Judge Steve Kirkland was already a district judge when Hartle was promoted, but still remembers her appointment. “Judge Hartle took over as head of the courts at a time when the morale was low. The courts had been under intense scrutiny and criticism for several years as they implemented a paperless case-management system. Judges were spending more time looking at computers and less time looking at people. Judges, attorneys, the public—everyone was unhappy with the result.  Judge Hartle created more of a collegial spirit and a happy workplace. She visited her associate judges so they could see that she was engaged in how the day went for them.”

Judge Jerry Simoneaux agrees: “Judge Hartle implemented a system of managing our dockets that has greatly improved efficiency and reduced unintentional errors. That means our citizens will spend less time in court. For me personally, Judge Hartle has [made it clear] that we municipal-court judges deserve the same respect that every other judge in the state receives. She has also let us know that kindness, humility, understanding, and respect for our citizens is paramount to what we do.”

During Hartle’s tenure, a clerk certification and career-track initiative was started. The program gave the clerks a small financial incentive to study and pass the state certification exams, perform well on their annual evaluations, and obtain additional training. This has proved to be very successful and has improved the overall performance of the clerks. It has become a model statewide.

Dealing with the Job’s Complexities

Maria Casanova, who is now an attorney in private practice, served on the court for 22 years. As an unsuccessful applicant for the presiding judge position in 2010, she remembers Hartle’s graciousness and humility when Casanova wasn’t selected. “She came to me and said my help would be invaluable to her, because I had been on the bench so much longer than she had.”

Hartle later made Casanova the number-two person in the system. “I’m sure glad now that I was not selected,” Casanova laughs. I had no idea how much went on besides what occurs on the bench. It’s overwhelming! I often saw Judge Hartle taking home manuals and policy binders.”

Regarding her working relationship with Hartle from 2010 to 2014, Casanova says, “Knowing the bench is important, but a good understanding of law enforcement is also necessary. It’s a huge balancing act between many departments. Judge Hartle has inherently sound administrative qualities. She can exert power and sensitivity at the same time. She is decisive, but she listens to people.”

Houston’s Municipal Courts Are a Model of Diversity

Houston’s former first lady Kathy Hubbard says she is proud of Houston’s municipal court system. “It has shown an increasing embrace of diversity over the past three decades, with a court that now reflects the city’s citizens.”

The late John Paul Barnash was the first openly gay municipal judge, Hartle the first openly lesbian judge, and Phyllis Frye became the first openly trans judge.

The current municipal court system has 367 employees, 68 percent women and 32 percent male. Ethnically, they are 50 percent black, 30 percent Hispanic, 15 percent white, and 4 percent Asian/other.

There are 68 municipal judges, 53 percent female and 47 percent male. Ethnically, they are 35 percent black, 20 percent Hispanic, 36 percent white, and 9 percent Asian/other.

Working with the Houston Police Department is an integral part of running the municipal court system. The police and the judiciary are two different cultures, and they don’t always work well together. But Hartle’s past experience in law enforcement and corrections has made for smoother relations because she can see things from both viewpoints.

The main municipal court building is located on the edge of downtown at 1400 Lubbock Street. It was named in honor of the late Herbert Gee, a municipal judge who died of lung cancer in 2011.

Additionally, there are annex courts at HPD substations in Kingwood, Clear Lake, West Montgomery, Mikawa, and Dairy Ashford. Jury trials can also be held at the Dairy Ashford location, so officers don’t have to go all the way downtown. As the city grows and new substations are built, court facilities will be included in the design. These will be freestanding structures next to the substations instead of inside them. 

Compassion Is as Important as Punishment

Hartle is getting ready to implement a new “prostitution diversion” program, in conjunction with the mayor’s office and the HPD Vice Division. The program will allow the courts to drop the charges if the sex workers reach out to social-service providers, who will be in the courtroom on trial days. The goal is to provide intervention and help break the ties they have with their handlers.

Under Hartle’s management, the court also participates in a “warrant roundup” program. This State of Texas program began several years ago, but Hartle has worked to make it more visible. She works with local media to get the word out, even on non-English local TV channels such as the VIETV Vietnamese network. Citizens with outstanding warrants are invited to come to the courthouse and negotiate a resolution of their warrants. Based on circumstances, the charges may be reduced, replaced with community service, or put on long-term payment plans. Their fate will be far more favorable than if they end up being tracked down and arrested.

In 2009, the Texas legislature empowered municipal court judges to perform weddings. In 2013, Hartle convinced the City of Houston to allow marriages to be conducted in the municipal court facilities. With the advent of marriage equality, same-sex weddings can now be performed by Houston’s municipal judges.

On one Saturday each month, Hartle sometimes performs as many as 13 weddings a day, bringing in $2,600 of revenue for the city. Hartle enjoys the weddings, and special arrangements are made for holiday weddings such as Valentine’s Day. Even Halloween weddings are performed. Hartle once married a couple dressed in Spiderman outfits. “They did have trouble getting the rings on, though,” she laughs. “So we just had to sort of fake that part of the ceremony.”

A Background that Prepared Hartle for the Job

Hartle was born on the grounds of the Annapolis Naval Academy. She earned a degree in social work at the University of Texas in Austin, and a master’s degree at St. Edward’s, also in Austin.

Jobs were not plentiful for social workers at the time, so Hartle became a corrections officer. After being promoted to sergeant, Hartle earned her peace-officer certification. She worked at the city jail in Austin, where she was responsible for transporting prisoners to and from the jail, and also to Huntsville. “It was a three-and-a-half-hour drive at night, and we arrived as the sun came up.”

Hartle first met her partner, Vallarie Fisher, in 1993. In 1995, they decided to become partners. Hartle was a uniformed deputy sheriff, and then gravitated to the field of adult probation. In 1996, she began law school to earn her law degree and find a job as a prosecutor for the Austin Municipal Court. In 2002, she and Fisher moved to Houston to be with family.

Eventually, she applied for a part-time associate municipal judge position. In 2006, former mayor Bill White appointed her. In 2009, she became a full-time municipal judge, and in 2010 was chosen to be the presiding judge. She was reappointed in 2012 and 2014.

Reflecting on what makes a good judge, Hartle says: “They must have knowledge of the law and be able to show fairness to both sides in a case. And they must have integrity.” She likes the standard practice of bringing in new judges part-time. “It gives us a chance to see how they perform on the bench and how they interact with people. It also helps weed out the ones who succumb to “black-robe syndrome.”

While Hartle likes being a judge because she likes working with people, her increasingly busy life running the municipal system has kept her from actually hearing cases for nearly a year. She misses it, but she knows that her current job is important, too.

Work/Life Balance

Hartle and her partner will celebrate their 21st anniversary this July. They have thought about marriage, but they have discovered that it would have significant financial consequences. They still are hoping to tie the knot after retirement.

Fisher has two children—a son and a daughter, Tara, who is also a lesbian. Hartle says that her partner didn’t know about her daughter’s sexual orientation until she was told, but the situation has made their lives easier and given them something wonderful to share.

Tara and her partner, Kim, have a son and daughter—Dylan and Kyra—both from artificial insemination, using the same anonymous sperm donor. Hartle says that the children are popular and active.

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.”

The Orlando Pulse nightclub tragedy shocked Hartle and her family, just like the rest of the community. Wanting to take a stand against the senseless violence, she joined other local activists at a rally held at Houston’s South Beach nightclub on June 14, 2016.

She spoke briefly at that rally, and ended with this challenge to the community: “We will not forget Stonewall, we will not forget Harvey Milk, we will not forget the people who died of AIDS while the government did nothing, and we will never forget Orlando.”

Anyone whose life has been touched by Judge Barbara Hartle will no doubt agree that she is a woman whom they will never forget, either.

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Brandon Wolf

Brandon Wolf is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.

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