austindefender

Criminal defense in Austin Texas.

Judge Charlie Baird

Posted By on November 6, 2008

I came across interesting article about Judge Charlie Baird in the Austin Chronicle article the other day.  I’ve known him at least since I tried a case in front of him when he was a visiting judge, but the article was worth reading.  (It’s interesting how much better the Chronicle is than the Statesman, when it comes to local reporting.)

I also hadn’t realized that Baird had played a role in the Criner case.

Baird was not one to go along to get along; he consistently wrote more opinions each year than any other judge on the court, and he pushed the majority to address specific points of law by writing strong, detailed opinions – even in cases the majority would rather have addressed with no written opinion, which lawyers refer to as “white cards,” for the small, white postcard notice that notes only that an appeal has been denied. That’s what happened in several high-profile cases – including the infamous case of Roy Criner, wrongfully convicted of rape. (When DNA tests proved someone else, not Criner, had had sex with the victim, Keller dismissed that evidence as meaningless – the victim might have been promiscuous, she opined, and Criner might have used a condom.) In that case (and several others) Keller was forced to issue her retrograde opinion only because Baird had issued his dissent, and the majority opinion in Criner reads more like a retort to Baird than a stand-alone, reasoned judicial argument.

Judge Baird

Judge Baird

The Criner case became famous in 2000 when Bush was running for office.  Frontline did a story on the case, which included interviews with Judge Baird and Presiding Judge Sharon Keller.  Criner was eventually released, after ten years in prison.  (FWIW, the opinion itself seems to have disappeared – withdrawn from publication, I suppose.)

The article goes on to address the tension between the judge and the DA’s office.

Retired Judge Wisser acknowledges there may be some leftover resentment among prosecutors. There is “much more friction and personal animosity with the D.A.’s office. He ran against the [D.A.’s] trial chief [Meyer], so some of that may be expected,” Wisser says. “He has a strong personality. He’s an interesting fellow, and he’s certainly shaking things up here and doing things that he thinks are right.”

I like Judge Baird a lot, and I appreciate the extra time he takes with defendants – even though it can be l harder to appreciate when you’re next in line, and you’re already running late.

Still, Baird says he won’t change – that is, as he did on the CCA, he’ll refuse to adjust his philosophy or approach in order to appease anyone before or outside his court. But he does intend to blaze a path forward. He is adamant, for example, about scheduling more jury trials – as of May 1, he already had 55 jury trials set on his court calendar, far more than any other district judge. And that is a good thing, he says; Baird would like to see as many trials on the docket as possible. “I like that, for two reasons. Number one, it gets the community directly participating in the process,” he says. “If they sit there and they see an aggravated robbery case and they’re called upon to assess punishment and they assess it at 10 years or 50 years or whatever, it informs my judgment on what the community feels about aggravated robbery. So, I enjoy that; I think that is positive,” he continued. “The other thing is, I want them to leave the courthouse feeling confident about their criminal justice system” – to know that they are the process, he says.

He’s right about that.  Too often judges view a trial as a failure of negotiations, or of docket management.  Ultimately, though, trials are why we’re there.


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