Standing on the steps of the Tarrant County Courthouse, incoming District Attorney Phil Sorrells embarked on his inauguration speech in front of a few dozen supporters.
“Assuring public safety is the first task of government,” said the former criminal court judge even as our founding documents are primarily safeguards against tyrannical government overreach and not mandates that We the People should be just bootlickers of a police state.
Sorrells may have forgotten how the courts themselves are seen as cruel and unjust by locals. Tarrant County’s family courts, for example, force parents to fund well-monied law firms that float the campaigns of family court judges. Our criminal and civil courts are run by black-robed crooks who rule with impunity even as Texans seek new laws to disbar, impeach, and even imprison corrupt DAs and judges (“ Corrupt Courts Destroying Families,” Oct. 2022).
Sorrells’ decision to appoint a buddy as First Assistant Criminal District Attorney is just the most recent reminder that Tyrant County rewards the good-ol’-boy system even as that kleptocracy may finally be crumbling under the weight of its own graft. Reforming how judges are disciplined has become a priority for Texans of all political persuasions because judges are rarely disciplined at all. Many parents and former defendants are networking, and they’re refining ideas for reforms, including livestreaming all courtroom proceedings and removing immunities that allow judicial officers to commit crimes that would land normal folks in prison. If successful, these systemic changes would prevent the types of abuse routinely witnessed by and visited upon Tarrant County residents.
The DA’s new No. 2, Robb Catalano, came to our attention early last year when he bailed on a dubious trial assigned to his court. He conveniently extricated himself from the politicized prosecution of a former justice of the peace who had crossed former elected officials DA Sharen Wilson and County Commissioner J.D. Johnson (arguably two of the most corrupt county officials ever). Catalano then hand-picked a retired misdemeanor judge to preside over the felony case in which the JP’s alleged misfiling of her homestead exemption somehow constituted public corruption. It was nothing but political retaliation.
That case led us to uncover a statewide system in which visiting retired judges often assigned to cases under false titles and not required to file oaths of office are allowed to earn $750-a-day fees while double-dipping off county retirement.
Sorrells and Catalano are arguably the two worst people, let alone local judges, who could have been picked for these two incredibly important positions. Tens of thousands of legally innocent defendants are waiting for their day in court, most of them in the shitty Tarrant County Jail, and Sorrells’ publicly stated plan to fix the backlog is to hire a bunch of his retired buddies to return to work. We guess that’ll let Sorrells and Catalano make all of their early-afternoon tee times.
County and district judges earn cush salaries of $140,000 to $180,000 per year, and taxpayers should demand these old white men (and they’re mostly old white men) take responsibility for backlogs instead of hiring their retired country club friends to pick up the slack.
Our DA appears to not understand how courtrooms work, but his Democrat opponent Tiffany Burks did. The former prosecutor told us that rehiring elderly judges does nothing to stop the daily grind at the DA’s office, where prosecutors have to contend with their own backlogs. A better plan, she said during her campaign, would be to freeze courtroom hearings for the DA’s office to take account of which cases are even prosecutable anymore. Many cases involving nonviolent, minor crimes — like ones for marijuana possession — could be disposed of in a way that maintains public safety while allowing defendants to move on with their lives, she said.
One courtroom insider who requested anonymity to protect their privacy told us Sorrells spent more time playing video games and gabbing with Catalano in courtroom chambers than he did overseeing cases throughout much of his 30-year career. In a 2021 poll, 2,600 members from the Tarrant County Bar Association voted Sorrells least likely of any misdemeanor criminal judge in the county to follow the law. By all means, Tarrant County voters, let’s put this guy in charge.
The antics of the two former judges now heading the prosecutor’s office follow a pattern of abuse of power on the part of local judges who are increasingly scrutinized by the public and grassroots groups. Speaking at an event sponsored by True Texas Project (the rebranded Tarrant County Tea Party) on Monday, Brooks McKenzie called out Associate Judge Kate Stone and many family court judges for violating family code law and the civil rights of parents for little apparent reason. McKenzie, who holds a Ph.D. in child development, is advocating for much-needed reforms like livestreaming all Texas court proceedings and replacing the State Commission on Judicial Conduct with a new agency, one that’s not beholden to protecting crooked judges.
The livestreamed hearing of Aaron Dean brought national condemnation to how our judges shamelessly attack citizens. During the sentencing phase of the trial that sent the former Fort Worth police officer to nearly 11 years in prison for the 2019 murder of Atatiana Jefferson, Judge George Gallagher called Manual Mata to swear in as a witness even though the citizen journalist had no direct knowledge of the case (‘ Clown Show,’ Dec. 2022). When Mata asked for his attorney, Gallagher had bailiffs arrest him for contempt of court. Upon his release three days later, Mata publicly blasted the judge for singling him out, allegedly as retaliation for Mata’s popular YouTube videos that document police misconduct.
Following two terms by disgraced former DA Wilson, the county prosecutor’s office was in desperate need of honest and transparent leadership to restore public faith in the department. Sorrells’ self-aggrandizing speech does nothing to prove to non-bootlickers that local government is here to serve the people, and we can only wonder how long Sorrells and Catalano will wait to install a PlayStation 5 and a big ol’ comfy couch at the Tim Curry Criminal Justice Center.
This column reflects the opinions of the editorial board and not the Fort Worth Weekly. To submit a column, please email Editor Anthony Mariani at Anthony@FWWeekly.com. He will gently edit it for concision and clarity.
This story is part of City in Crisis, an ongoing series of reports on unethical behavior and worse by local public leaders, featuring original reporting.