Express-News columnist Gilbert Garcia told a disturbing tale this week about a good judge who was forced off the bench.
It wasn’t, as far as we can tell, because Judge Oscar Kazen was caught selling judicial rulings in exchange for auto repairs — the pathetic cause of the last untimely departure of a Bexar County judge.
Nor has Kazen been involved in any other public controversies.
In fact, his specialty mental health court has received considerable praise as part of remarkable advances here in the handling of mental health cases.
In fact, we don’t know for sure why Kazen was fired by his boss, Probate Judge Kelly Cross.
She didn’t return phone calls from Garcia and she told me county policy prohibits her from commenting on personnel policies.
If the county has a policy that bars elected officials from explaining to their bosses, the voters, why they replaced a respected judge of one of the nation’s best mental health courts with one of her employees, Commissioners Court ought to consider changing that policy.
She also didn’t tell Kazen why he was fired.
Judge Cross coldly delivered the message two ways: first, by email, then by dispatching a process server who went to Kazen’s home and handed a formal termination letter to his wife.
So why does Cross have the power to fire Kazen?
Bexar County has two probate courts whose responsibilities include committing people to the state hospital who are considered to be a danger to themselves or others.
Nearly a decade ago, probate Judge Tom Rickhoff, a week after winning re-election, announced that he would no longer handle mental health cases — shifting the entire burden to the other probate judge, Polly Jackson Spencer.
Spencer came to work closely with Leon Evans, the executive director of the Center for Healthcare Services, the county’s mental health agency.
He arranged to pay for a case worker in her court to design treatment plans of therapy and medication for persons, some of whom had been repeatedly sent to the state hospital.
Judge Spencer could then in effect put them on probation on the condition that they get the help they needed.
The result, says Evans, was a 60 percent reduction in repeat commitments.
But Judge Spencer’s docket became so overloaded that six years ago Commissioners Court agreed to set up a specialty court under her, presided over by an associate judge.
Spencer chose Kazen, who had served for years as a county court-at-law judge but had lost a primary election by seven votes.
Spencer, a Democrat, did not run for re-election two years ago.
2014 was a non-presidential election year, when Republicans tend to win judicial elections.
Out of 30 contested races, only one Republican lost, Art Rossi, a lawyer with a background in family law and commercial litigation.
Judge Cross hired him as her staff attorney, and now has replaced Judge Kazen with him.
Cross has the authority to hire whomever she wants for the job, but by giving no reasons she is encouraging speculation.
Columnist Garcia talked to sources in the probate system who regret the loss of Kazen’s experience and mental health expertise.
Some observers told Garcia they see it as Cross giving Rossi a leg up toward replacing Judge Rickhoff, who says he won’t run for re-election two years from now.
One factor is that Republican Cross is replacing Democrat Kazen with a fellow Republican.
But the courthouse culture of judges is not the partisan battleground that you see in Congress.
When a good judge of either party loses an election, other good judges of both parties grieve it.
One long-time Republican judge I talked to called Cross’ action a “rookie move.”
“Associate judges ought to be left alone if they are doing a good job,” the judge said.
What’s more, she “put a target on her back” when she runs for re-election two years from now.
I think the judge is right.
Judges have enough patronage in hiring staff.
By removing a highly respected judge in a specialized field for an untested associate, she is putting at risk the welfare of some of our community’s most vulnerable citizens.
That should be an issue two years from now when Judge Cross runs for re-election.