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Panel: Five Austin municipal judges should come off the bench

A committee of Austin City Council members on Monday recommended not reappointing five municipal judges after they received reports indicating some had exhibited unprofessional behavior and made dangerous decisions.

The five judges not recommended to serve another four-year term include Erik Cary, the city’s overnight magistrate judge, who is often the first judge defendants see after being arrested to set their bail. The four others are part-time “substitute” judges.

A panel of nine attorneys conducted the review of each of the city’s 22 judges and looked at applications, performance reviews and comments made on sitting judges. The four members of the council’s judicial committee approved the panel’s recommendation unanimously Monday.

“We all unanimously agreed that none of them are fit to continue as judges generally because they weren’t fair and didn’t consider defendants’ individual circumstances,” said panel member Emily Gerrick, an attorney with the Texas Fair Defense Project.

Municipal judges most often try cases involving traffic tickets. However, they all can serve shifts as magistrate judges, approving probable cause affidavits that allow law enforcement agencies to press charges against an individual. They may also set bail.

“These positions are extremely powerful positions, and they are not elected, so it is very hard … for them to be held accountable if there is something going on that we don’t want to see in our judges,” Council Member Delia Garza said.

Municipal judges are appointed by the City Council. To be eligible, a person must be a licensed attorney in good standing with at least five years of legal experience, in addition to meeting residency and citizenship requirements.

The part-time judges who will probably not be reappointed are Beverly Landers, F. Witcher McCullough, Olivia Ruiz and Celeste Villarreal.

Villarreal has faced some backlash since she authorized the release of a teen accused of threatening to “shoot and blow up” Akins High School on $15,000 bail with no conditions for monitoring. In 2016, Villarreal authorized the release of a man accused of stalking on a public recognizance bond; he then attempted to hunt down and kill his ex-girlfriend but killed himself when he did not find her in her home.

Villarreal did not return a call seeking comment.

The most excoriating input on the judges’ performance came in anonymous responses to surveys given to law enforcement, court staffers and prosecutors, according to copies of the input provided to the Statesman.

For Cary, one said he was rude and unprofessional. For Landers, one said she makes poor decisions that endanger the community, though the survey didn’t specify how.

Cary is the only full-time judge the committee did not recommend for reappointment.

Gerrick said she has seen Cary jail defendants without asking them questions about their financial situation and ability to pay bail.

“You need judges who treat people with respect and are compassionate and make bail decisions based on whether someone was a threat, whether they are a flight risk and their ability to pay,” Gerrick said.

Cary did not return a message seeking comment.

The City Council committee recommended hiring one new judge. That leaves four vacancies at the municipal courthouse that Council Member Jimmy Flannigan said he hopes to have filled in April.

The council could give final approval to the committee’s recommendation at its March 8 meeting.

McCullough, who has been a part-time judge for the Municipal Court since 2012, said he was blindsided by the committee’s recommendation not to reappoint him.

“I’m certainly disappointed and surprised,” he told the Statesman. “I don’t understand where they are coming from.”

Landers and Ruiz did not return phone messages seeking comment.

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