Judge accused of partiality allowed to stay on case

EDINBURG — A Nueces County judge ruled Monday that local county court-at-law judge Sergio Valdez can continue presiding over a case despite allegations by an attorney that Valdez made biased rulings against his client.

The ruling came after Valdez, who presides over County Court-at-Law No. 7, declined to recuse himself from the case at the request of attorney Abel Hinojosa, who filed a motion of recusal against the judge in February.

State District Judge David Stith, who serves as a visiting judge in South Texas, made the ruling a week after hearing arguments during an April 26 hearing about Valdez’s handling of the case. This included testimony from Hinojosa that Valdez allegedly put his client on a house arrest program, despite him not meeting the program’s criteria, and that Valdez refused to set a trial date for the three-year-old case.

The case stems from a 2016 misdemeanor violation of a protective order charge against Jason Miller, who hired Hinojosa to represent him. Miller is the ex-son-in-law of state District Court Judge J.R. “Bobby” Flores, and Hinojosa alleged a close friendship between Flores and Valdez led Valdez to issue rulings favorable to Flores’ daughter.

Stith’s order may come as somewhat of a surprise given that he also issued an interim order immediately after the hearing requiring whichever judge would preside over the case to determine whether Miller met the criteria for the county’s Alternative Incarceration Program and to “set this case for hearings and disposition without further delay,” according to the order.

However, no pretrial or trial dates had been set in the case as of Monday, according to the online case history.

RECUSAL EFFORT RETRACED

Hinojosa testified that the most significant ruling Valdez issued came last July when Valdez ordered that Miller have no contact with the couple’s two children, just as Miller was about to begin standard visitation granted by a judge presiding over the divorce and ensuing child custody case. Valdez’s decision came even though prosecutors never sought such an action, and it was this decision that prompted Hinojosa to seek his removal from the case.

Carlos Garcia, an Austin-based attorney who assisted Hinojosa during the recusal hearing, told Stith that Flores’ daughter “uses the criminal case as subterfuge to get (Miller) no visits.”

Kellie Flores was not called to testify as Stith granted her attorney’s motion to quash her subpoena.

Valdez did not appear at all during his recusal hearing and was unable to be served with a subpoena despite three attempts by a process server, who went so far as to sit through two hours of a morning docket in the judge’s courtroom, according to the server’s affidavit. The affidavit further noted that Valdez and his staff were aware of the server’s presence.

Given the judge’s absence, Stith told Miller’s attorneys that “especially when there is not somebody from the other side, I’m accepting a lot of these things as true … I’m accepting the case history as to what is stated (by Garcia and Hinojosa).”

Another person on the county’s payroll that avoided subpoena attempts for the hearing was Dr. Martha Kang, director of clinical services for the Hidalgo County Community Supervision and Corrections Department. The server attempted to serve her six times, according to his affidavit, and she did not return calls made to her cell phone.

When Valdez made the July 2018 decision to set a bond condition denying Miller access to the children, he ordered Miller undergo a range of psychological tests, which Kang was to review at an October 2018 hearing to determine whether he was a threat to his children.

On the day of that October hearing, Valdez called Miller’s case first, despite it being number 18 on the docket. The probation department had filed a motion to quash Kang’s testimony, which the judge granted without hearing arguments from Hinojosa, who was not present in the courtroom because he was tied up in another court.

“Essentially Judge Valdez sent away the one witness (Hinojosa) needed … and the one witness (Valdez) needed,” Garcia told Stith, later adding it was unknown whether Valdez or Kang had ever reviewed the psychologists’ reports on Miller.

CASE IN LIMBO

Since October 2018, there have been no case settings, another issue raised during the recusal hearing.

Valdez’s court coordinator, Noe Martinez, was unable to answer why he hadn’t given pretrial and trial dates for the case despite Hinojosa repeatedly announcing “ready for trial” in open court. Martinez further testified it was the attorneys’ responsibility to call and ask for pretrial and trial settings after filing a motion requesting one — something Hinojosa testified he has never heard of in his nearly 30 years of practicing law.

While Valdez and his staff have allegedly refused to give settings for motions Hinojosa has filed on behalf of Miller — such as dismissals of the case due to two speedy trial violations — Valdez moved quickly after Kellie Flores filed her own motion in July 2018 allegeding Miller had violated bond conditions.

Hinojosa testified that Valdez called himself and the prosecutors into his office to notify them of her motion, which Hinojosa said he was unaware of, and to set a date to hear it. The motion was heard a week after it was filed, according to the case history, and it was her motion that Valdez used to restrict Miller’s access to his children.

Stith agreed with Hinojosa and Garcia during the hearing that Kellie Flores had no standing to file a motion in the case, as she was not a party in the case.

Her motion was only heard after the assistant district attorneys assigned to that courtroom adopted her motion as their own, after being advised to do so by Valdez.

Stith, in his interim order, required whichever judge presides over the case to determine whether Miller had, in fact, violated any written condition of his bond, as Kellie Flores alleged, “which formed the basis for Judge Sergio Valdez” to restrict Miller’s access to his children.

During the recusal hearing, Hinojosa testified that, to his knowledge, there were no such written bond conditions on which Flores based her allegations.

RELATIONSHIP STATUS

Garcia told Stith the relationships between Valdez, Judge Bobby Flores and even District Attorney Ricardo Rodriguez Jr. “are affecting the decision-making in the courts.”

Flores was called to testify about his friendship with Valdez, which he described as strictly professional. He denied discussing his daughter’s case with Valdez or anyone else, saying, “I don’t want to talk about Jason Miller; he’s been a nightmare ever since he got into my family.”

As evidence of the friendship between the judges, Garcia and Hinojosa showed Stith photos of Valdez and Hinojosa swearing each other in after their re-elections to the bench. Stith also saw a photo of the two judges at a campaign event for attorney Armando Marroquin, who unsuccessfully ran for Hidalgo County Court-at-Law No. 5 in November 2018.

It has long been rumored that Marroquin, who works out of Flores’ former law office, ran against incumbent Judge Arnoldo Cantu after Cantu voluntarily recused himself from presiding over Miller and Kellie Flores’ divorce case, which had been assigned to his court. After Cantu stepped down from the case, visiting Judge J. Manuel Bañales took over the proceedings and ruled it was in the best interest of the couple’s children for Miller to have unsupervised visitation.

When asked by Garcia if he had put up Marroquin to run against Cantu, Flores called the allegation “further from the truth,” and said he “didn’t encourage” Marroquin to run, also testifying he had “no idea” why Cantu recused himself from the family law case.

The recusal hearing also revealed this was not the first time one of Flores’ family member’s cases has landed in Valdez’s court. Hinojosa told Stith that Valdez presided over a civil case involving another Flores daughter after the case was transferred from Hidalgo County Court-at-Law No. 2 to Valdez’s court. The reason for the transfer was unknown.

Hinojosa called the clerk for the court to testify, but she had no knowledge of whether someone had intervened to get Miller’s case randomly assigned to Valdez’s court.

While Stith agreed to quash Rodriguez’s testimony during Friday’s hearing, the DA did not escape mention during testimony.

Hinojosa testified he approached Rodriguez in the courthouse last summer to inquire about whether the misdemeanor charge against Miller would hold up in court, to which Rodriguez allegedly responded “I’ve gotta talk to Bobby.”

The capacity in which Rodriguez spoke with Flores was unknown from the hearing, as prosecutors have the authority to speak with both victims and their families.

Rodriguez previously told The Monitor the allegations made about him in Hinojosa’s motion to recuse — specifically that according to Kellie Flores, “her father helped District Attorney Ricardo Rodriguez get elected” and thus Rodriguez owned him a favor  — are untrue.

IN THE INTEREST OF EXPEDIENCY

After Stith’s order was handed down Monday, Hinojosa filed a third motion to dismiss Miller’s case due to speedy trial violations. The motion notes that “991 days has passed since the case commenced” and that neither Miller nor Hinojosa have contributed to or caused the delay.

Per Stith’s April 26 interim order, that motion, along with all other pending motions filed by Hinojosa, must be heard “prior to this case being set for Pre-Trial and Jury Trial.”

No such hearing had been scheduled as of Monday.

In handing down his interim order, Stith noted he was making certain requirements of the judge that will preside over the case “so this case gets done soon.”

The protective order from which Miller’s charge stems expired in February 2018.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE

Judges’ friendship at center of messy family law dispute