Source: El Paso Times
Rate Judge Mike Herrera
AUSTIN — An El Paso judge has received the state’s second-severest sanction for, among other violations, keeping a case involving himself in his own court for months.
The Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct in February issued a reprimand against 383rd District Judge Mike Herrera. It said that in 2012, Herrera filed for divorce and kept the case in his own court for four months, even going so far as to file motions in the matter.
It concludes that Herrera “failed to comply with the law, demonstrated a lack of professional competence in the law, and engaged in willful and persistent conduct that was clearly inconsistent with the proper performance of his judicial duties.…”
The reprimand was first reported by the Lion Star Blog.
For his part, Herrera said he did little wrong.
“This was my personal divorce,” he said in an interview Tuesday. “The fact that it was in this court made no difference. It stayed there. I wasn’t actively doing anything. Me and my former spouse were working on everything. She and I were working on everything carefully.”
Herrera did not respond directly when asked if keeping his own divorce in his court for months gave an improper appearance that might undermine the public’s faith that the courts are fair.
“I did tell the commission that it might have been poor judgment not to have this case out right away,” he said “But at that time there was no issue, there was no rush. There was nothing.”
In addition to reprimanding the judge, the commission ordered Herrera to seek six hours of “additional education.”
Seana Willing, executive director of the Commission on Judicial Conduct, said the only more serious punishment the commission could have given would be to begin a process that could end with a judge’s removal. She said it’s been more than 10 years since that’s happened in Texas.
“Because we elect our judges, it’s not going to be easy to reverse the will of the voters,” she said.
The reasons Herrera gave the commission for not transferring his divorce out of his court and the reason he gave Tuesday appear to differ.
He filed a divorce petition on June 6, 2012, and he told the commission that he was aware that the case had been randomly assigned to his court the same day it was filed.
“According to Judge Herrera, he let the case remain in his court because he was ‘trying to save the marriage and [he] did not want to do anything on the case,’ adding that he saw his role in the divorce proceeding as that of a husband, not as an attorney or judge,” the reprimand says.
However, on Tuesday Herrera said the case was paused in his court while he and his former wife, Melissa Carrasco, worked out an agreed settlement.
“We were not thinking about seeking litigation,” he said. “If you look at the emails, I was basically … we were working things out. What bothers me is if you look at this situation, this is a private matter that can be handled by adults. If you want to litigate it, you can go to court and fight about it. We didn’t want to fight about it. We didn’t want to waste our estate.”
Herrera was referring to emails that were sent between him and Carrasco about the divorce in June and July 2012 — while the case was still pending in Herrera’s court, according to the reprimand.
On July 16, 2012, a lawyer representing Carrasco, Angelica Carreon-Beltran, filed a counterpetition for divorce that ended up in Herrera’s court because that’s where the original petition was filed.
Herrera said that Carreon-Beltran is a political enemy of his who improperly solicited his ex-wife’s business as a way of getting revenge against him.
Carreon-Beltran denied that Tuesday.
She said that she was an acquaintance of Carrasco’s from El Paso Bar Association functions. They had something in common because they had had babies within a week of each other and they became Facebook friends, Carreon said.
After seeing some morose posts by Carrasco, Carreon-Beltran said she sent a private message asking if she was OK. Carrasco said she was, Carreon-Beltran said.
Then, about a month later, Carrasco sent a message asking Carreon-Beltran to call, Carreon-Beltran said. On the call, Carrasco said she wanted to divorce Herrera, Carreon-Beltran said.
“She was telling me, ‘No one in town will represent me,’ ” Carreon-Beltran said, explaining that other divorce lawyers apparently did not want to get on the wrong side of one of the county’s few family-law judges. “She said, ‘He’s railroading me.’ ”
Carreon-Beltran denied Herrera’s claim that she was his political enemy. She said she contributed to the judge’s opponent — a high-school classmate — in the 2012 election after contributing to Herrera in the 2008 contest.
Herrera, however, said that Carreon-Beltran was causing all the friction between him and his former wife.
“This lawyer kept trying to interfere with the amicable resolution of the issues,” he said.
He also denied that Carrasco ever had any issues with his conduct during the divorce.
“My former spouse has never complained about any of this,” Herrera said in an email Tuesday evening.
Carrasco couldn’t be reached via Facebook.
On Sept. 7, 2012, Herrera dropped his petition for divorce against Carrasco, but Carrasco’s counterpetition against him remained pending in his court.
In order to figure out how much property the couple held in common, Carreon-Beltran said she filed a motion for discovery. It was filed Sept. 11, 2012, according to Herrera’s reprimand.
Felix Saldivar, the El Paso attorney who filed Herrera’s initial petition, said he turned the motion over to Herrera.
“I never got retained,” Saldivar said, explaining that he only filed the case as a courtesy. “I wasn’t paid a cent.”
After the deadline to respond to Carreon-Beltran’s motion passed, she said she was struck by the absurdity of the situation. She wanted to file a motion to compel him to respond.
“How can I go into his court and argue that?” she asked.
Herrera contends that the case was no longer in his court by the time the deadline passed.
He told the Commission on Judicial Conduct that when he realized he couldn’t reconcile with Carrasco, he agreed to transfer the case out of his court. The commission said that on Sept. 27, 2012, Regional Presiding Judge Stephen Ables requested that the case be transferred, but an order doing so wasn’t signed until Oct. 17, 2012.
Herrera argued that means his case was out of his court on Sept. 27 — before he filed a motion on Oct. 16, 2012, seeking an extension to respond to Carreon’s motion for discovery.
“I was not petitioning myself,” Herrera said.
The commission saw it differently.
“During his testimony before the commission, Judge Herrera acknowledged that, technically, he had petitioned himself for relief when he filed the motions; however, he believed he had done nothing inappropriate since he never ruled on the motions,” the commission’s order says.
Carreon-Beltran said that unbeknownst to her, Carrasco signed off on a final divorce decree that also was signed by 384th District Judge Patrick Garcia.
“I was dumbfounded,” she said of the May 13, 2013, decree.
Herrera said that in the settlement, Carrasco got about $200,000 in assets, while he took on $35,000 in debt.
He emailed what he said was a June 14, 2013, affidavit by his former wife.
“I reject (Carreon-Beltran’s) statements that I was intimidated, that I was coerced, that I was threatened,” it said. “That is why I am making the declaration that Angelica Carreon is no longer my attorney.”
Other divorce troubles
Herrera’s reprimand wasn’t the only ethical fix he got into related to his divorce. In 2013, he faced almost $16,000 in fines from the Texas Ethics Commission for failing to timely file campaign finance reports the previous year.
“I was having a lot of personal issues because I was going through a divorce that just started,” he told the El Paso Times then. “They’re very unforgiving over there” at the Ethics Commission.
Herrera, who faces no opponent in the Nov. 8 election, appears to have settled up with the Ethics Commission.
But Carreon-Beltran doesn’t think his penalty from the Commission on Judicial Conduct goes far enough. She thinks Herrera should no longer be on the bench.
“If he thinks he doesn’t have to follow the rules, it shows he’s not worthy to be a judge,” she said.