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The Worst Judge in Dallas County

How did Charles Sandoval, the worst judge in Collin County, wind up sitting on a Dallas bench?
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TOO SHARING: Charles Sandoval was notorious for his ex parte communications. illustration by John Cuneo

There’s always that guy who stays long after the party has ended. Drop all the hints you want. But he’s going through your music collection and checking to see if your couch folds out. Tell him you have an early meeting, and he’ll ask if you have anything to make a sandwich with.

Which brings us to Judge Charles Sandoval, arguably the most ineffective judge working in Dallas County today.

The party that Sandoval won’t let end gracefully started in 1996, when he took over the 380th District Court in Collin County. If history serves as any guide, he should have been able to keep his job for as long as he wanted it. But Collin County voters threw him out 12 years later. It’s difficult to pinpoint any single cause for his defeat. But lawyers who tried cases in his courtroom say he was petty, cruel, inconsistent, and just plain rude.

“Oh, he played favorites, and he would just litigate from the hip with no regard for what the law said,” says attorney Luke Gunnstaks.

Sandoval’s actions on the bench have led to a slew of his decisions getting reversed in the 5th Court of Appeals. In a civil case two years ago, one of the parties actually collapsed in Sandoval’s courtroom, and the paramedics were called. The man decided to go home. His attorney asked for a continuance. Sandoval said no, let’s keep going. The 5th Court recently ruled that was grounds enough to uphold an appeal.

And though every judge has the occasional inappropriate exchange with one attorney in a case in the absence of the other attorney—that’s ex parte communication in legalspeak—Sandoval was notorious for it. Gunnstaks recounts discovering in deposition 12 pages of notes taken by a private stenographer that detailed Sandoval’s ex parte discussion with Gunnstaks’ opposing counsel in Sandoval’s Collin County chambers, covering how the case would proceed.

And it’s not just Gunnstaks who has a low opinion of the judge. Referring to the small backlog in his court, Sandoval once told the McKinney Courier-Gazette: “I run a very efficient court. I think if you ask other attorneys and judges in this county, they would agree.” Sandoval did run an efficient court—if that was the word for it. “He emphasized speed no matter what it meant for the application of the law or the rights of defendants,” says an attorney who stood before Sandoval on several trials. “The problem with a judge who sees himself or herself as a ‘law and order’ type who ‘tries’ cases instead of presides over them is that they start identifying with the prosecution. We already have jurors who think someone must be guilty if they’re a defendant. It’s really not right when a judge thinks that way.”

The Collin County Bar Association surveyed its membership. On things such as impartiality, availability, ability to set aside personal biases on race and politics, consistency, comprehension of the law, and overall performance, attorneys rated Sandoval at the bottom of all Collin County judges. Not just once but twice. He actually got the lowest approval rating in the history of the survey: 12 percent.

Then there was the drug treatment program that Sandoval oversaw. Prometa was an unproven cocktail of medications marketed by a former junk bond salesman under the company name Hythiam. Sandoval invited the Los Angeles-based company to test Prometa on drug offenders in his court. On his old campaign website, he boasted that he was responsible for this drug treatment program, saving Collin County $400,000, with no mention of the success rate. But at one pre-election forum, Sandoval said that Prometa helped keep 100 percent—20 of the 20—of the people he sentenced to use it free from methamphetamine use for 90 days. (Sandoval didn’t mention the test subject who died; presumably he was counted among the nonrecidivists.) That percentage varied—sometimes it was 70 percent, sometimes higher, depending on his audience.

When Sandoval received a newspaper’s Freedom of Information Act request for all documents related to the Prometa testing program, he replied that he didn’t keep such records of the ongoing study. The Prometa trials ended in Collin County along with Sandoval’s judgeship.

For some or all of these reasons—well documented by Bill Baumbach’s Collin County Observer site at—Sandoval lost his job. In a move unprecedented in Collin County—no sitting Republican district judge had ever been challenged, much less defeated—Republican primary voters kicked Sandoval to the curb in March 2008, replacing him with fresh-faced challenger Suzanne Wooten, who was 26 years his junior and a relative newcomer to Plano from San Antonio.

Sandoval took that “no” as a “yes.” Before his term was up, he launched immediately into a campaign to get back in black, vying for an appointment to a newly created district court, or at least for a position as a visiting judge, where he’d earn a small stipend ($400 a day, plus time toward his judicial pension) for acting in effect as a substitute teacher.

Problem: Collin County’s board of judges decided they didn’t want Sandoval serving as a visiting judge in Collin County courts. And the Republican party platform for Collin County says defeated judges shouldn’t serve. But Sandoval wouldn’t be deterred.

He wrote an amusingly bitter letter on November 3, 2008, calling the Collin County ban a dumb rule, because sometimes “better candidates are defeated by lesser candidates.” He cited the 2006 Democratic sweep of Dallas County. He added: “To put it differently, if you were given the choice, sight unseen, to have a defeated Republican judge in Dallas try your case, or the victorious Democrat, which one would you choose?”

Now, Dallas County Republicans have a rule just like Collin County’s. Judges defeated in Dallas County elections shouldn’t serve again. But Dallas’ rule doesn’t specifically prohibit judges defeated in Collin County from serving as visiting judges in Dallas County.

That’s how Sandoval became Dallas’ problem.

Judge John Ovard, whose First Administrative Judicial Region covers Dallas, Collin, and more than two dozen other counties, appointed Sandoval a visiting judge twice this year to Dallas County drug courts, for two weeks.

Sandoval declined an interview request. But he did tell D Magazine, “I don’t think my plans would be very newsworthy.”

Ovard, on the other hand, is happy to talk about his appointment. “I don’t know if he’s gotten an unfair reputation,” Ovard says. “If it’s not like a sweep situation [in an election], I don’t assign them if voters say they don’t want him, and that’s why I didn’t assign him in Collin County. I know him, but I’ve never really seen him in trial. Sometimes if you take judges out of their own areas where they might have problems and take them on a limited basis, they can do a good job, and he did in the drug court, from what I understand. Had reports come back unfavorable, I wouldn’t use him again. I may use him again, depending on the circumstances. It sounds like he made improvements.”

One hopes. Anyone following the news knows that the 5th Court of Appeals has enough on its hands with all of Dallas’ DNA appeals, myriad false convictions, and the very recent successful appeal of a capital murder conviction of a Peruvian nanny, when the appellate judges ruled that the judge unconstitutionally refused—flat out refused—the admission of forensic evidence questioning the state’s entire account of the murder.

The judge on that last case? Take a guess.

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