Editor’s note: Suzanne Schwab-Radcliffe, an associate judge, resigned her post of 16 years after the Committee on Judicial Ethics released an opinion stating that a family law jurist cannot also practice family law as an attorney in the same county or in surrounding counties that use the same appeals courts. Judge Christopher Dupuy of Galveston’s County Court at Law No. 3 requested the opinion. Dupuy held Schwab-Radcliffe in contempt in November, claiming there was a conflict of interest in her dual role as a family law attorney and judge.
In 1987, as the population of Galveston County was growing by leaps and bounds, the 306th Family District Court had a backlog of over 3,000 cases and one judge to hear them as well as a part time associate judge to hear temporary matters in divorce cases.
If parties wanted a jury trial, they would get in line on the civil jury docket of one of the other district courts and wait a couple of years.
State Rep. James Hury was ready to pass a law to establish a second Family District Court to divide the caseload of family, juvenile and child-abuse cases when it was suggested by the county courts-at-law, if they could get a raise, they would take some of the burden. Ergo, no new family court but a new law giving those courts family jurisdiction and raising their salaries.
This was the situation when I took the 306th bench on Jan. 1, 1991.
As Galveston County grew, this arrangement proved unsatisfactory, especially for child-abuse cases, which require close supervision and multiple hearings. The Texas Legislature passed new laws with strict requirements on the handling of child-abuse cases, particularly regarding returning the children to their parents if the case could not be resolved in one year.
Federal funds became available for grants through the Children’s Justice Act. Suzanne Schwab-Radcliffe, who served on the statewide Child Abuse and Neglect Task Force and worked as a child-abuse prosecutor, brought to my attention that requests for proposals to improve the handling of child-abuse cases were to be sent out by the state. I wrote and received grants to reform the way Galveston County courts handled child-abuse cases. As a result, the 306th became one of five model courts in the state.
County Courts-at-Law Nos. 1 and 2 transferred all their child-abuse cases to the 306th. Ms. Schwab-Radcliffe, who was married and starting a family, left the District Attorney’s Office, and I appointed her as part-time associate judge for child abuse and neglect cases at a salary of $30,000 a year with no benefits. She worked Tuesdays and Thursdays hearing these cases.
Later, another family district court was almost created when State Rep. Patricia Gray was in office, which would have caused a substantial change in the docketing of family law cases, but the then-sitting judges in every other court in the county opposed the creation of a family district court and so the 405th was created instead.
As the population continued to grow, another county court-at-law was created. The family law cases heard by the other county courts-at-law were divided by three instead of two, but the child-abuse cases continued to be heard by the 306th District Court judge and her associate judge.
Over the years, the situation has evolved as officials have come and gone. Ms. Schwab-Radcliffe out of necessity had to practice law to support her children, and she only practiced law in the other courts. All of this was by agreement.
To call this cronyism is to use a tainted brush to paint what was intended and designed to be a program to help children and families and to impugn the integrity of not only Ms. Schwab-Radcliffe but of the current sitting district court judge, Janis Yarbrough. It is only out of malice and ignorance that anyone would do so.
Susan P. Baker is senior district judge, Family District Court, 306th Judicial District.