A LEGENDARY TEXAS JUDGE
|Judge Jimmie Duncan|
He was a judge, alright, even though his was one of the lower courts in the pecking order of judicial peacockery. His was a county criminal court judge in Harris County, Texas. No murders, robberies or kidnappings; just driving while intoxicated, theft cases, carrying a pistol (when it was still illegal in Texas) and other misdemeanor cases. But everybody who worked in the criminal justice system from the late 1950’s until the early 1990’s knew the name of Judge Jimmie Duncan.
His was the most efficiently run and productive (in terms of disposing of cases) of all the courts in Harris County and probably the entire State of Texas. If you were subpoenaed or if you were a lawyer with a case in his court, you’d better be there at the appointed time. More than one police officer who showed up late got the experience of spending most of the day in a holding cell after being found in contempt for tardiness. The anecdotal stories of Judge Duncan’s dealings in the courtroom are voluminous.
With silver hair and a cigar either in his mouth or his hand, sitting on the bench high above his audience, glaring over a pair of reading glasses at those summoned to his court, he struck fear in the hearts of the law and the lawless alike. Oh, the prosecutors and the police loved his tough sentences and no-nonsense dealings with the criminals before his court, but they shuddered when they, themselves were called before his bench for some courtroom oversight or misdeed.
He reigned supreme in County Criminal Court #3 and is reported to have disposed of over 150,000 cases during that time. He was known for his love of guns and for carrying two pistols under his judge’s robe while sitting on the bench. In a story printed in The Houston Lawyer, it was reported that Judge Duncan would send his bailiff to the cafeteria in the Criminal Courts building to search out lawyers late to his court. He would then take pleasure in incarcerating them to ensure their presence when their client’s case was called.
One oft-told story is about the defendant standing before the Judge who sentenced him to a fine of $200 and no jail time. When the defendant said, “No problem, Judge, I’ve got that right here in my back pocket,” Judge Duncan changed the sentence to 30 days in jail, commenting, “How about 30 days, you got that in your back pocket?”
The good Judge’s love of weapons got him into trouble with the State Commission on Judicial Conduct. In 1970 the Commission censured him for having removed 212 handguns from court storage and taking them to his home. Also pointed out by the Commission was the fact that he sometimes raised the bond for defendants without cause and might also require them to stand trial on their first appearance after arrest. Judge Duncan was not deterred.
He commented, “I will continue to abide by the rules of criminal procedure….. I’ve followed those rules for the past 21 years. That’s all I’m going to say.” There was little change in his courtroom after the censure.
Judge Duncan was often given the lowest ratings by defense attorneys who conducted an annual poll ranking judges. But the voters loved his no-nonsense approach and returned him to the bench time after time, and those same attorneys still attended functions honoring him. One famed Houston criminal lawyer, Percy Foreman, (photo at left) said he was a man who couldn’t be intimidated.
Duncan himself commented on the poll, “I think the public is pretty well satisfied with the way my court is being run. I’ve only been reversed about a half-dozen times in over 100,000 cases. We’ve had a current docket almost constantly since I’ve been here.” (Referring to no backlog of cases) “The way I understand it, that’s what you taxpayers pay me to do.”
Judge Duncan grew up in Houston. He joined the Navy and was on the U.S.S. Minneapolis when Pearl Harbor was attacked. He came home and worked as a longshoreman to pay his way through law school. After election to the bench, he called himself a “boot-wearing, butt-kicking” judge.
He was sometimes accused, especially in the Mexican American community, of being racist. Having sat in his courtroom and observed justice being meted out to defendants, police officers and lawyers alike, of all races, I’ve never found merit in those charges. He was always willing to jail any of them for contempt. The lucky ones might just be verbally ripped to shreds publicly in a packed courtroom. Judge Duncan’s brand of justice seemed to favor none over the other regardless of race, religion, status in the community or any other factor. The rules in his courtroom were color-blind.