Thursday, March 6, 2008

Nuchia's ground- and neck-breaking jurisprudence

Republican primary voters decided they had enough of Sam Nuchia, and gave him the boot. So much for the power of incumbency, the on-line off-shoot of the TEXAS LAWYER trade journal observed. ("First Court Justice Goes Down")

To which one might add: So much for hometown newspaper endorsements.

As previously noted on this blog, the Houston Chronicle, which is one of the top US dailies in terms of circulation and holds a monopoly position in Harris County since the folding of the Houston Post years ago, endorsed incumbent Sam Nuchia in the Republican primary, crediting him for having overturned Andrea Yates' conviction for killing her kids.

Nuchia's defeat, though, hardly proves that incumbency or endorsements don't matter. It says a lot about Nuchia, however, an incumbent who was judged "not qualified" by more than 500 lawyers in this year's pre-election bar poll, and who used the Yates case to refurbish his image as an appeals court judge so tough on crime he had never seen a conviction that could not and should not be affirmed.

From the news coverage of Nuchia's defeat readers might conclude that he lost because, rather than despite, one seemingly compassionate appellate opinion.

The public's and history's judgment on Nuchia should no doubt be based more than a single opinion, especially since the reversal of Yates was so atypical, albeit indisputably astute, since it allowed Nuchia to prove the critics wrong and create the public (mis)perception that criminal appeals (other than appeals of DWI convictions) are actually winnable in the Houston Courts of Appeals.

Given Nuchia's time and work on the court, his impact goes way beyond the Yates case, significant as it may have been. Yates v. State, 171 S.W.3d 215 (Tex.App.--Houston [1st Dist.] 2005, pet. ref'd).

Accordingly, credit should be given were credit is due.

Among other accomplishment, Justice Sam made his mark with an innovative solution to jail overcrowding: granting immunity to prison guards who break inmates' necks and let them die, thus further adding to Houston's hard-earned reputation as capital punishment capital of the world and its legendary ability to assure positive outcomes in analyzing crime scene evidence in its crime labs even if science alone would not be of any help to prosecutors.

As if to mark the untimely demise of crime fighter Nuchia's judicial career at the hands of his own local party, the Texas Supreme Court granted a moratorium ("abatement") in its pending review of the Nuchia's ground-breaking opinion in the prisoner-asphyxiation case the day after Nuchia was defeated in the primary.

TDCJ v. Thomas No. 01-04-01084-CV (Tex.App.- Houston [1st Dist.] Apr. 19, 2007, pet. filed)(Nuchia) (plea to the jurisdiction, suit against government entity)
Opinion by Justice Nuchia
Before Justices Sam Nuchia, Evelyn Keyes and George C. Hanks, Jr.
Full style: Texas Department of Criminal Justice and Glenda Pierson v. Linda Thomas as Personal Representative for the Estate of Damon Hollimon, Deceased, and Ashley Dominique Hollimon
Appeal from 278th District Court of Walker County
Disposition: Reverse Trial Court Judgement and Render Judgment for Defendants
Justice Keyes dissented in TDCJ v. Thomas

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