Texas appeals court reverses case after judge told lawyers to ‘hurry up’ — then ruled mid-trial
By Keri Blakinger
A Texas appeals court overturned a decision by a Harris County civil judge who cut off testimony mid-way through trial and then abruptly issued a ruling after complaining he wanted the parties involved to “hurry up.”
Throughout the proceedings for the small contract dispute in Harris County Court at Law No. 1, Judge George Barnstone expressed frustration at how long things were taking. Then, while attorneys peppered the defendant with questions, Barnstone cut in with one of his own: “What do I have to do to get y’all to hurry up?”
One attorney suggested simply dismissing the case altogether — and Barnstone promptly responded by issuing a judgment against the man’s client, then threatening to have bailiffs remove the lawyer from his court when he asked questions, according to court records.
“I was shocked,” said attorney G. Troy Pickett. “Judges generally don’t violate the due process of the people in front of them in ways that are apparent. It happens enough that there are appellate courts to take care of it, but generally it’s a question of law and the judge is doing the best that they can — but this was not that.”
Pickett appealed the ruling and last week the First Court of Appeals sided with him, sending the matter back to Barnstone’s court for another look. When reached for comment by a Chronicle reporter, the jurist initially responded to multiple questions with extended silence before explaining that he could not comment.
“That case is still active; I don’t feel like I can comment on that,” he said. “It’s a violation of the judicial cannon for me to comment.”
The legal wrangling stemmed from a 2015 contract between homeowner Dean Smith and repairman Lyle Bitner. That fall, Bitner agreed to repair eight columns on Smith’s portico for $28,000. But at some point Smith stopped paying, and the relationship soured, according to court documents. Afterward, the two men offered different accounts as to what happened and how much work Bitner actually completed.
The matter ended up in court after Bitner filed suit, demanding payment of just over $20,000. His attorney did not respond to the Chronicle’s request for comment.
During the February 2018 trial, Bitner was the first witness to take the stand. Smith’s lawyer, Pickett, started cross-examining him about whether he’d been fired from the job and whether he could justify the amount of money he wanted, according to a transcript of court testimony.
That’s when Barnstone cut in with his question.
“Dismiss the case, Your Honor,” Pickett replied. “I mean, you asked what we would want, so — and otherwise, I have to ask the questions that establish whether or not he is entitled to the money that he’s asked for and whether or not he is being truthful in his statement regarding that amount.”
The judge promptly ruled against him, and Pickett protested that he hadn’t been able to present his case at all.
“You are excused,” Barnstone told him. “Judgment for plaintiff. Court of Appeals is right there.”
Pickett began asking the judge questions, and Barnstone eventually threatened to have him removed from court. Ultimately, that didn’t happen and Pickett let him enter into the record proof of the evidence that he would have presented, so the appeals court would be able to review it later.
“I asked both of you gentlemen to hurry,” Barnstone said. “I don’t know what I can do to get you moving besides this.”
The following month, Pickett filed an appeal and nearly a year later the 1st Court of Appeals reversed the judge’s ruling for violating due process. Now, the case will be headed back for Barnstone’s court and possibly for another trial.
After more than two decades of practicing law, Barnstone was first elected to the civil bench as a Democrat in 2016. When he ran for reelection in 2018, he told the Chronicle that he believed the job required him to “scrupulously follow the law” and to apply “judgment and compassion.”