If Bert Richardson remains on the bench for the criminal case against Gov. Rick Perry, those who know the former prosecutor say trial watchers will be treated to an engaged judge.
“He’s got a great passion for the law,” said Patrick Hancock, a San Antonio defense lawyer who first met Richardson when the two were assistant prosecutors in San Antonio’s Bexar County district attorney’s office more than 25 years ago. “He’s a thoughtful jurist. He was a thoughtful lawyer. He knows what his role is whether it is as a judge or a prosecutor.”
Perry has been charged with two felonies, accused of abusing his official power by threatening to veto $7.5 million in state funds from the state's public integrity unit unless Democratic Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg stepped down following a drunken driving arrest and conviction. The Travis County DA's office oversees the state-financed public integrity unit. Lehmberg refused to resign, and Perry vetoed the money.
It’s Richardson’s Republican bonafides that have kept conservative criticism of the case more focused on the Aug. 15 indictment against the longest-serving Texas governor than on the 58-year-old former state district judge expected to oversee the case.
In 1999, Richardson, a former federal and state prosecutor who was lived in San Antonio since graduating from St. Mary's University School of Law, was appointed by former Texas Gov. George W. Bush to fill a newly created judicial seat, the 379th in San Antonio. Richardson kept that seat until 2008, when he lost to a Democrat.
Since then, Richardson has been working as a corporate lawyer “of counsel” at the San Antonio firm LM Tatum and working as a visiting judge, filling in for judges who are on vacation or have too heavy a docket to manage.
“Bert’s a nice guy, very conscientious. Very affable,” said John E. Murphy, who worked with Richardson when the two both worked at the U.S. attorney’s office in San Antonio. “He’s remarkably polite. He’s smart. He cares what the law is and tries to follow it.”
Richardson found himself at the center of the criminal case against Perry a year ago when state District Judge Julie Kocurek of Austin recused herself because she is the presiding judge of criminal matters in Travis County.
That’s when state District Judge Billy Ray Stubblefield appointed Richardson to take her place in the case.
Richardson, in turn, appointed his former boss at the U.S. attorney’s office, Michael McCrum, as special prosecutor in the matter. The case came to court after Texans for Public Justice, a liberal group that focuses on the influence of money in politics, filed a criminal complaint about Perry’s threat to veto the funds.
Hancock called his former colleague and long-time friend "very fair."
“From Del Rio to Georgetown to Rockport," he added, "the guy just has a great reputation with both sides of the bar."
But speculation remains as to whether Richardson will remain on the governor's case. The judge is on the ballot in November — as the Republican nominee for a seat on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in November.
During the first court hearing on Aug. 22, Richardson set a deadline for Perry defense team’s first legal challenge and then reminded both defense attorney David Botsford and prosecutor McCrum that a hearing would follow shortly after “if I remain on the case.”
Richardson declined to comment on his plans in the case. Stubblefield, who appointed Richardson, told The Texas Tribune that Richardson has so far not asked to be taken off the case. Judicial rules allow for Richardson to remain on the case even if he wins the November election. He would have to recuse himself if a new judge took over and a matter from the case came before the criminal appeals court.
On Monday, Botsford, one of Perry’s attorneys, filed the first challenge to the indictment, an application for writ of habeas corpus. Botsford has until Friday to file all of the initial challenges to the governor’s indictment. Once they are in, McCrum will file his first responses and a hearing on the challenges will be held.
How Richardson, who teaches at his alma mater, will rule on this first challenge is also the latest speculation game in legal circles.
Ryan McConnell, who teaches criminal procedure at the University of Houston and was a federal prosecutor for four years, said the Perry team’s application for a writ is unlikely to get the case thrown out. But he said it’s a smart move because it allows Perry to tell his side of the story in a way that goes beyond speaking to the media.
“Courts are reluctant to intervene in a proceeding so early on,” McConnell said. “I think it is definitely something you have to try. But in terms of getting your story out there and talking about things that you believe are wrong in the case, I think it is a good strategy.”
Bobby Blanchard contributed to this report.
Disclosure: The University of Houston is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Texas Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.