Google+ Back to mobile

What Does Judge Denise Pratt Have to Do to Lose Her Job?

by Published on
Judge Denise Pratt
Judge Denise Pratt

Early voting for the March primaries will begin in just a month and, as usual, all eyes will be on top-ballot races with multiple viable candidates. But one far less noticeable Harris County vote may help answer a perennial political question: Does bad press make a difference in down-ballot races?

At issue is Denise Pratt, the judge for the 311th Family District Court. She faces four Republican challengers in the primary. And with good reason: She’s been mired in scandal since last October and a fresh round of allegations has just emerged. But unlike so many scandals, the accusations against Pratt have nothing to do with slush funds, tax fraud, or “hiking the Appalachian Trail.” Rather, they’re about how she does her job, if she’s negligent, whether she broke the law to cover it up.

The Houston Chronicle, Houston Press, and even local conservative bloggers have reported the debacle diligently. Defenses and explanations offered by Pratt’s lawyer have ranged from weak to nonsensical. But should Pratt win the primary, she’s likely to keep her judgeship thanks to straight-ticket voting. So if persistent, apparently well earned bad press is going to make a difference, it’ll be on March 4th.

Here’s the Denise Pratt story, also known as How to Lose Friends and Alienate Lawyers.

Pratt started strong. An experienced family law attorney, she garnered a Chronicle endorsement and beat four other candidates in the 2010 primary without a runoff. Then she won election by 10 points. But for reasons unknown, Judge Pratt fell behind. She started issuing rulings long after their hearings and letting cases pile up that needed only a signature. In May of last year, the 14th Court of Appeals reprimanded Pratt for “unreasonable” delays and ordered her to rule on a case she’d heard 10 months before, which she did.

Then the intrigue began. In June 2013, just after the appeals court slapped Pratt’s wrist, a man whose divorce case Pratt heard three months earlier finally got his ruling. His hearing had been March 25th. The ruling was dated March 25th. But the man didn’t receive notice until June. This was, he said, despite contacting Pratt’s office repeatedly and being told he’d get the ruling as soon as it was ready.

Greg Enos, a local family law attorney, was suspicious. Enos suspected Pratt had gotten in trouble, fished out an overdue case and backdated the ruling. He wrote as much in his watchdog blog, “The Mongoose,” and asked other lawyers who suspected judicial shenanigans to contact him.

They did. When Enos filed a criminal complaint against Pratt in October, he cited six cases and alleged rampant backdating. In November, 32 Houston-area family law attorneys signed a letter calling for Pratt to step down. Then the Houston Bar Association’s biennial judicial evaluations savaged her. Seventy six percent of respondents said Pratt was “poor” at following the law; 81 percent said she was bad at issuing timely rulings; 83 percent reporting she wasted attorney time; and 79 percent rating her poor at working hard and being prepared. In all, 57 percent of respondents gave her the lowest of five possible overall ranks.

But Pratt wasn’t merely unpopular. Enos’ complaint sparked an investigation by the Harris County district clerk, during which Pratt’s lead clerk, a 25-year veteran, pleaded the Fifth and resigned. Pratt heard one case in January, issued a ruling in May, and dated the ruling a day before the two-day trial actually ended.

The district attorney empaneled a grand jury to investigate whether the judge tampered with court records. Though in December the grand jury declined to indict Pratt, visiting judges did grant eight lawyers’ requests to have her removed from their cases.

And her time on the un-fun side of the bench may not be over. On Thursday, Enos filed another complaint against Pratt, this time citing what the Chronicle adorably calls a “surprise docket purge” of more than 700 cases in a month.

For obvious reasons, if a judge schedules a hearing he or she has to give the affected lawyers notice. Failure to appear can be grounds for dismissal. But according to Enos and several other lawyers, Judge Pratt dismissed hundreds of cases without warning attorneys to show up.  Most of the purged cases were signed on Dec. 30 and 31, when the district clerk’s office told the Chronicle no dismissal dockets were scheduled.

It’s hard to see how Pratt thought this would go well. Her lawyer, Terry Yates, has yet to pitch a convincing explanation for any apparent improprieties, though he’s made up for in quantity what his explanations lack in quality. Among the justifications offered are:

  • Lawyers didn’t receive notice because of the new electronic filing system in the District Clerk’s office, which that office’s spokesperson told the Chronicle “has nothing to do with the mailing of notices.”
  • Lawyers with dismissed cases have “just got to file a motion to reinstate…so it’s really no big deal,” Yates said to the Chronicle.
  • Purging cases at the end of the year is normal, though in December Pratt dismissed at least 561 and the eight other family court judges dismissed between 28 and 121.
  • Pratt has the most pending cases of any family court—more than 3,000—which Yates told the Chronicle is “really a legislative issue to get more family courts here so the dockets are manageable.”
  • And of course, no litany of excuses would be complete without this old chestnut: The accusations against Pratt are, according to her email to GOP precinct chairs, all “rumors that are being spread by the Democrats and the liberal media.”

Even if all the criminal and more moustache-twirling allegations against Pratt are untrue, there’s no question that she issues tardy rulings, lets cases pile up, and is held in abysmal esteem by the lawyers with whom she works. All indicators suggest, in short, that she does a bad job. She’s also not a seasoned incumbent letting things slide; this is her first term. And she’s drawn four challengers in the primary.

One would think all this would doom her, but besides incumbency she has one advantage: While the local conservative press has turned against her, the Republican Party hasn’t withdrawn its endorsement. Thus, Pratt’s primary pits the media against the establishment.

It’s not Chris Christie-level drama, but for the hundreds of Houstonians whose divorces and child visitation rights hang in the balance, the quality of a single judge matters very much indeed. The question is, come March 4th, will that matter to the voters?

Emily DePrang joined The Texas Observer in 2011 as a staff writer covering criminal justice and public health. Before that, she was nonfiction editor of the Sonora Review. Before that, she was a waitress. She's also appeared in The Atlantic,, and VICE. She holds an MFA in Nonfiction from the University of Arizona and has won some things, including the Public Service Award from the Society of Professional Journalists (2012), the National Health Journalism Fellowship from USC Annenberg (2013), and a nomination for a National Magazine Award in Reporting (2014). She still sometimes thinks about waitressing.

  • April D. Korbel

    Why do we elect jusdges in the first place? There has to be a better system.

    • lessthantolerant

      because appointing them is the most corrupt way, have you not seen the scum democrats have put in office?

      • Arnnmann

        Haaaaa ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!!!! Funnier and funnier!

        • lessthantolerant

          Thanks for proving my point.

  • lessthantolerant

    She sounds like a democrat, so obviously she should be dethroned. She sound too much like that idiot Wendy Davis.
    When will Texans wake up and begin ridding themselves of democrats and moderate Republicans?
    They have supported Bath House Barry and his gang of criminals and it is time to try to save America from scum.

    • Arnnmann

      I’ve come to the conclusion that you’re a closeted progressive, and that what you mean whenever you post something here is exactly the opposite of what you say. I think that’s the best view to take of most of the statements currently issued by most so-called conservatives, anyway, so I think you’ve hit the right chord. I mean, it’s so easy to parody, I can see how your stuff just writes itself.

      So from now on, I’ll just laugh along with your jokes. I really appreciate their frothiness. Keep ’em comin’.

      • lessthantolerant

        Delusional socialist democrat.

    • Mr Chow odysseus660

      Wendy “the trailer trash to riches” Davis? hahahaha

  • ethanspapa

    Her political status doesn’t matter with this underachieving boob. She is just really really stupid and lazy.
    I wonder how many times it took her to pass the bar. She could be one of these intellectuals that don’t know when to get out of the rain , At least the population can throw her out.

  • Mr Chow odysseus660

    Being democrat is a crime in itself.

  • Tim

    I am supporting a single mother trying to get visitation and support established with the child’s father. After both parties and attorneys agreed to a visitation arrangement and support agreement this Judge requested both lawyers appears behind closed doors. Instead of signing off, this Judge required an amicus to get involved. I guess she does not recognize the limited income of young parents. This effort has been going on now for 6 months and nothing signed off yet. The father can’t see the daugter and the mother is not receiving any support. I should have pursued with this the Attorney General’s office. The Harris County family court system has become a joke.

  • Bullto

    311th District Court has been a horrific experience all around. I have a sibling that has been a single mother to her child ( she didn’t get child support, she was the sole parent). He find out how great they were doing and reamerged. He already had a long history w/ the law. 3DWIs, drugs, arsen,assault etc. He pleaded to Judge Pratt, no job, etc. His rights were reinstated, he kept her daughter didn’t return w/her ( he didn’t follow any order), got arrested w/ her. At 4:30 am. 4th DWI’S w/ minor, positive for high levels of cocaine,
    judge Kevin Fine ( convicted felon out of prison ) let him walk, w/ no jail time,fee,kept his rights.He brought the child back and MIA, only to file access again w/Pratt which he received, he had several more run ins w/the law, she appointed an Amicus Claudia Canales has never spoken to her, has charged her thousands
    when she has followed the law to a t, has called, wrote, only access is when invoice needs to be paid, It has been hell on earth, and on top of that her daughter who’s she’s taken care of was stripped of everything.Reset,reset , invoices when he is denying what is in the orders, Come to find out there are hundreds of children, going through the same situation, and hundreds of great parents with no access to their Children. Parents that have been the sole provider and naturer. Now Judge Pratt is having criminal complaints, along w/ her partners (our protectors for justice & children). Where are her rights,for being a good parent, making a stable life, etc… Where do you go? Why is this allowed? it’s heartbreaking, watching this…. And how that will change all these children not being able to see their mom/dad…
    There is a petition to congress for change, and immediate attention.pls go and vote, you never know if some one you love might have to endure this heart wrenching injustice.

    • Stop Attny Canales

      Canales strikes again….. My research on her has been overwhelming horrible with the havoc she has done to children including mine!

  • Stop Attny Canales
  • Stop Attny Canales

    Canales is NOT about “the best interest of the
    child”, unqualified, does not investigate, incompetent and more. She
    affected my son’s life forever.

    Amicus/Ad Litem can be disciplined by the bar. Let’s stand
    together to stop her from harming our children and future forever as she has
    done to mine. 40 minutes with me and hours and hours with my ex and his
    witnesses that lied knowing he was verbally and physically abusive to me with
    police reports. The witnesses, now his wife, lied and my ex even abused her and
    her children while Canales’ interviews was going on! Canales would not even
    return my phone calls, read my emails, nor talk to my witnesses until right
    before mediation (a whole 30 minutes for both witnesses). She blasted me in
    mediation for asking for prayers for my son’s dysplastic nevi (29 removed and
    70% abnormal; ex’s family has a history of skin cancers) that was a result of
    many sunburns in my ex’s care. This injustice with her was a few years ago but
    an incident this week compelled me to speak out.

    Custody battle ensued as he didn’t want to pay me code child
    support (from $500 per month to $1750) and he had my son convinced that I was
    trying to keep him from him although I gave him and his extended family extra
    time. Who lets a 12 year old read court
    documents that they don’t understand! Was it not enough that I walked from a
    million dollars of assets with permanent damage from physical abuse my son

    During the custody battle Canales was standing there with my
    attorney, my ex’s attorney Kay Polk, my ex, and my child when my ex was
    standing over my son in front of MY ATTORNEY and said ‘remember what we talked
    about so you can tell the judge’ (not verbatim since I declined to attend and
    put my child in that position and I knew that Judge York would not interview my
    son in chambers as they (Kay Polk) filed this 2nd emergency hearing to talk to
    my son after the Judge said NO the first time; and notified my attorney via fax
    after hours the evening before the hearing as a plan for him not to know nor
    attend the next morning!

    Let’s stand together to stop her. My gmail address is

    Review AVVO ratings, lawyerratingz, hope4kidz, and more.

    SECTION 1.05. Subchapter A, Chapter 107, Family Code, is
    amended by adding Section 107.0045 to read as follows:


    An attorney ad litem who fails to perform the duties
    required by Sections 107.003 and 107.004 is subject to disciplinary action
    under Subchapter E, Chapter 81, Government Code.

    Must reads:(They’re on Facebook and online sites)

    Barbara C. Johnson’s book Behind the Black Robes Failed Justice.

    Amy J.L. Baker, Adult Children of Parental Alienation
    Syndrome; for kids “I Don’t Want to Choose” I tried to give her a
    copy but she wouldn’t take it

    Dr. Richard A Warshak, Divorce Poison (a must read during or
    post divorce)Guide to prevent and overcome parental alienation