Wednesday, October 29, 2008

JUDGE WATCH: Austin Judge Thinks His Power Includes Ordering Woman Not to Get Pregnant

Here in Texas, even a state district judge can be a man with a hat and no cattle ....

Last month, Travis County Judge Charlie Baird faced off against 20-year-old Felicia Salazar, who admitted to the court that she had failed to properly protect her 19-month-old daughter from the child's father - who had beat the baby, breaking bones and causing other injuries.

Felicia and the baby daddy both had their parental rights to the child terminated, and the little girl was placed in foster care. Meanwhile, the father was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

When it came time for Felicia Salazar to face the music, she stood before Judge Baird with no prior criminal history and an acknowledgement that she'd failed her daughter -- and with her defense attorney, she'd entered into a plea bargain with prosecutors, where she would get 10 years probation. It was time for the Judge to impose conditions upon that probation, and usually judges require things like community service and mental health treatment.

Judge Baird did impose standard conditions to Felicia's probation: she has to perform 100 hours of community service, and she's got to undergo a mental health assessment. But Judge Baird went one further: he ordered Felicia NOT TO HAVE CHILDREN FOR THE NEXT TEN YEARS.

Can a judge really order a woman not to have a child? Really???

Nope. Of course, the Judge thinks so. He's told the media that it's a reasonable condition of her probation. And, there are those who would argue that it's all too often that parents who have had parental rights terminated just repeat the abuse cycle when they bear new offspring. They'd see this as avoiding a tragedy, and applaud Judge Baird's efforts.

They'd be wrong. This just isn't constitutional, period. A trial court judge can't tell someone that they can't have children. It's exceeding his power. Blatantly.

1. A man elected to preside over criminal proceedings doesn't have the authority to tell a 20 year old woman that she can't have a baby at any time, much less until she's 30 years old.

2. Even assuming that somehow this action could be justified, this would still be overreaching in this situation -- the woman has no prior history with criminal authorities or Child Protective Services, and she herself was not the one who committed the violent acts. I believe we can all read between the lines here: she looks to be a woman who cowered before an abusive boyfriend, and was too weak to stop him. What about getting her classes in parenting? life management? individual counseling?

3. How enforcable is this? What if she does get pregnant - is the Judge going to order that she have an abortion, in addition to revoking her probation and sending her to jail? Ridiculous.

Dangerous precedent being set here -- and in Wisconsin.

As much as this sounds like some story out of the annals of Judge Roy Bean, it appears that Felicia may be stuck with Judge Baird's ruling. Her attorney hasn't filed an appeal. Heck, Felicia may be counting her blessings that she's not behind bars, and she's happy enough right now.

If so, Felicia's challenge may come up later -- when she gets pregnant, and some probation officer tries to throw her in jail for violating a condition of her probation. Then, her lawyer will get this arrogant, unconstitutional ruling overthrown -- hopefully.

Why hopefully? Because up in Wisconsin, there sits on the books a case where a father of 10 kids got caught for not paying child support. As a condition of his probation, he was ordered not to father any more children. The Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld that decision.

Criminal Defense is all about Protecting Our Rights

Every single criminal defense attorney in this country gets questioned on almost a daily basis with a version of the same query: 'how can you represent those bad, guilty people who did horrible things to good folk?'

And, every single criminal defense attorney in this country has to remind people on almost a daily basis that those accused clients, in each and every case, are testing the strength of our judicial system -- a system of rights that serves to provide justice and freedom for each and every one of us.

The System of Rights that Protects All of Us is Weaker Today Because of this Decision

Felicia Salazar admitted to not being a good mother. Judge Baird thinks he's doing the right thing by keeping her from becoming a mother again. But, to you and to me, a constitutional right has been disrespected and weakened here and we should all be very concerned about this.

Any time the rights of any single individual are denied, one brick in that system of freedoms we all hold dear falls away.


Austin American Statesman

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