Judge Denise Pratt in Runoff -- But What of Her Peculiar "Gag Order"?
Pratt was also admonished by a higher court for allowing a custody case to linger. And according to Enos, that wasn't an isolated case. Yet if any of those parents expressed their frustrations in a Tweet, in a Facebook thread with friends, or in an interview with a sympathetic radio talk show host -- as Pratt did with KTRH's Matt Patrick in February -- they could have faced contempt charges.
In May 2013, a three-judge panel of the 14th Court of Appeals issued a partial writ of mandamus, chastising Pratt for not ruling on a parent's visitation motion for over ten months. The judges wrote that "a parent's right to access his child is a fundamental liberty interest more precious than property rights."
The appellate judges didn't tell Pratt how to rule, they just told her to rule.
We sought an opinion from Houston defense attorney Brian Wice, whose successful nixing of a gag order in a highly publicized criminal case in 2007 resulted in an appellate decision with an in-depth exploration of state and federal case law regarding gag orders and freedom of speech. (The defendant was Ashley Benton, a 16-year-old charged with stabbing a 15-year-old boy to death. In 2009, after a mistrial, she pleaded guilty to aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and was given five years' deferred adjudication).
"Did this gag order come from Gag Orders R US?" asks Wice, who also suggests that the order "has more holes than Kim Kardashian's head."
He adds, "This purported gag order may be the most poorly drafted I've seen....And whether it applies to one case, or whether it applies to a thousand is, to me, of little moment." (He also explains that the proper legal term for a gag order is "order restricting extrajudicial statements.")
We asked Wice specifically about the line "makes the following order in all" custody cases. Could that just pertain to an individual case?
"Sometimes I have trouble with English as a second language, but I don't think this is one of them," he says.
Still, Yates shrugs off the gag order as old, insignificant news.
He told us in an email that, "You can try to create a story here but there really isn't one."
But there is.
There are parents with cases before Pratt who are afraid to talk because of that gag order, and neither the judge who issued the order, nor her defense attorney, can say what case -- if any -- it applies or applied to or how long it is in effect. Is this order on standby -- is it something Pratt can whip out if another parent complains about a case languishing for ten months?
Yates tells us, "I sincerely doubt anyone is going to stick their neck out and say that that order was enforced in all SAPCR cases in the 311th [court] because it wasn't."
We know he's right on at least one count: what parent would be willing to risk upsetting the judge who can decide how often that parent can see their child? What parent would "stick their neck out," as Yates says.
Which, it appears, is precisely the point.