The freshman Republican jurist campaigned as a conservative advocate for children and families, touting her unique policy of keeping boyfriends, girlfriends and lovers of recently divorced litigants away from children. While a bevy of Houston-area lawyers and families who have rallied against Pratt challenged that claim, the Baytown native defended her record Friday in a statement that said her departure from the 311th state District Court was due to the damage that “relentless attacks by my political opponents” were having on the court, the local Republican Party and her family.
“I cannot, in good conscience, allow it to continue,” she wrote on her campaign website. “My goal has always been to serve the children and families of Harris County, but I won’t sacrifice my family’s well-being any longer to continue to serve as judge. … I don’t want to see my party, which I have worked to build, dragged down by the media circus.”
A Harris County grand jury began investigating Pratt, who was elected in 2010, last fall after Webster family lawyer Greg Enos filed the first of three criminal complaints against her. That led to the resignation of Pratt’s lead clerk, whom the judge blamed for the backdating. Enos’ most recent complaint, filed last month with the district attorney and State Commission on Judicial Conduct, alleged Pratt broke the law by dismissing more than 630 cases on the final two days of 2013 without giving notice to lawyers or litigants.
The move effectively nullified a bevy of property, child custody and child support arrangements she had previously made, creating additional anxiety, confusion and legal costs for families. As a result, one man’s ex-wife showed up at his house demanding to move back in.
Since Enos filed his first complaint in October, dozens of prominent family court lawyers – Democrats and Republicans, alike, and many with cases still pending in her court – spoke out against Pratt, signing a letter calling for her resignation, asking for her to be recused from their cases and – last Saturday – attending a protest Enos organized.
As of Friday, 29 motions to recuse had been filed, according to the administrative judge for the family courts, with 13 denied, 15 granted and one pending.
Earlier this month, Pratt was removed from five cases in a day by a visiting senior judge who criticized her for making a final ruling in a child custody case without hearing any testimony or evidence. The opposing lawyers on the case told the judge they recently had been interviewed by the district attorney’s office about it as part of an ongoing criminal investigation into Pratt, a claim the office has neither confirmed nor denied.
Pratt’s critics have harped on the fact that she and District Attorney Devon Anderson share the same political consultant, Allen Blakemore, who said Friday that “the DA’s office never initiated their own investigation; they responded to criminal complaints filed by Greg Enos. They investigated those criminal complaints and they found them to be without merit.”
Under investigation by Harris County prosecutors for dismissing hundreds of cases without notice, embattled family court judge Denise Pratt resigned Friday, abruptly ending her re-election bid.
On Friday, Pratt critics said they were elated by the resignation, but also frustrated that she continues to deny wrongdoing.
“Instead of taking responsibility for her actions, she’s blaming people like me, when all the lawyers want are judges who show up to work and follow the law and treat people fairly,” Enos said. “Had she done that, she wouldn’t be in this position.”
Despite the firestorm, Pratt secured the highest percentage of the vote in the five-way March 4 primary, but not enough to avoid a runoff. She was to face family lawyer Alicia Franklin in a May 27 election.
Pratt’s name will still appear on the ballot, County Clerk Stan Stanart said. Though his staff, as a practical matter, still could remove her name, state law would have required Pratt to file withdrawal papers by 5 p.m. March 12.
Pratt “often times didn’t come to court,” Franklin said. “Orders were not being signed and the local rules say that they must be signed within 10 days and sometimes there were orders” to transfer property or collect child support that “hadn’t been signed for seven months.”
Assistant Harris County Attorney Douglas Ray said Gov. Rick Perry will appoint a replacement for Pratt to serve through Dec. 31.
Harris County Republican Party Chairman Jared Woodfill said he will encourage the governor to select Franklin, who he said is the party’s “nominee by default.”
Franklin, who had been appointed by Pratt several times to represent children as an amicus lawyer, had originally planned to run for election to the 247th Court, but switched to the 311th when she started noticing problems.
Reporters Mike Morris and Dug Begley contributed to this report.