CORPUS CHRISTI Over the past two decades, many a South Texas defendant has feared a sentencing by state District Judge Manuel BaÃ±ales, who's known for meting out harsh and creative punishments.
In 1993, the judge made headlines by sentencing a first-offense drug smuggler caught with 54 pounds of marijuana to 54 years in prison. The conviction later was overturned and the man went free.
Eight years later, Banalesales again made national news by ordering sex offenders in Nueces County to place signs describing their offenses in front of their homes and on their cars.
Other offenders have been ordered to serve lengthy jail sentences in small installments, year after year, during the Christmas holidays.
He'sa no-nonsense judge who is very severe in sentencing. Very harsh,said Albert Pena III, a veteran criminal defense lawyer.
Thus, when Banales appeared to show leniency this spring after stepping into a high-profile case involving the state's most prominent fake lawyer, Mauricio Celis, the natural legal order shuddered.
That's not the Judge Banales I've known all these years. It's a different one. Maybe he's mellowing, said Pena, one of the few willing to speak on the record.
Banales' deepening role in the case has triggered a public showdown with prosecutor Carlos Valdez. The longtime Nueces County district attorney wants Banalesoff the case, claiming he hasn't been impartial.
I'm doing something that has not been done before. And when you take on a judge publicly, there may be consequences later, Valdez said.
Impersonating a lawyer
The improbable figure at the center of it all is Celis, a man who overcame his modest origins to open his own Corpus Christi law firm, earn an estimated $10 million mostly in case referral fees from lawyers and play the role of high-dollar rainmaker in Democratic political circles.
He did it all with brains and chutzpah, without even being a lawyer.
After he was denounced as a fraud two years ago, Celis added a colorful subplot to the story by chasing down a nude woman, who had fled his hot tub, while flashing a police badge and clad only in a bath robe.
As the criminal charges and civil suits piled up, Celis insisted he had a law degree from Mexico, dropping that claim only after being convicted of 14 felony counts of impersonating a lawyer.
The trial was heard by visiting Judge Mark Luitjen who was appointed by BaÃ±ales.
However, in May, just before the Celis sentencing, Banales removed Luitjen on a recusal motion.
The defense also asked for a new trial, claiming in both motions that Luitjen had been unfair.
As proof, seven jurors testified that he showed bias against Celis, and Banales took over the case.
But where Luitjen had outlined a sentence of a year in jail, probation and restitution of more than $1 million, Banales gave Celis 10 years' probation and reduced restitution to proven claims by victims.
It was almost identical to what the jury had recommended for Celis, who faces at least three more trials on related charges.
Assumingthat what Mr. Valdez says is true, that this defendant is a con artist of the greatest magnitude, that in and of itself does not warrant incarceration,Banalessaid at sentencing, noting the offenses did not involve violence or injury, and that local jails were crowded.
To some local lawyers, it didn't add up, but because Banales' reputation for harshness extends to his critics, few would speak on the record.
This was not business as usual. I think he did the guy (Celis) a favor. If this had been Joe Blow off the streets, he'd be doing his year in jail, one veteran defense lawyer said.
Said another lawyer, Banales is a stinker all the way around. Maybe Luitjen rolled his eyes a little bit, but that's never been grounds for recusal.
Mauricio Celis isn't going to harm anyone, said James Granberry, who has practiced before Banales
I didn't get a lot of heartburn about him not going to jail. Those beds are for people who keep me awake night, prying in my windows, he said.
The nuclear option
While online conspiracy theorists in Corpus Christi speculated wildly this spring about dirty deals in the Celis case, Valdez activated what he called â€œthe nuclear option.
Days before a June 26 hearing on a new trial for Celis, he filed a motion to remove BaÃ±ales, claiming his impartiality was suspect.
â€œJudge Banales came in and undid everything that Judge Luitjen had done. And if he grants the motion for a new trial, we're back to Square 1,he said.
In his motion, Valdez outlined the judge's financial and social links with various defense lawyers who have an interest in the Celis case, foremost Tony Canales, the lead defense lawyer.
The things we have raised went on outside the courtcampaign contributions, socializing with the judge, and the possibility that Judge Banales is in line for a federal judgeship and that Tony Canales would be the perfect conduit to help him,Valdez said.
A man of expansive ego and ambition, BaÃ±ales lost out on a bid in 1993 to become a federal judge in Corpus Christi. Rumors floating around town have him as possible replacement for U.S. District Judge Hayden Head Jr. who is expected to step down in October.
Because Canales is a member of a state judicial selection committee and a reputed kingmaker, he is well positioned to help Banales, according to Valdez.
â€œAnd if he thinks Tony can get him in, Tony is in the perfect place to get what he wants from the judge. It just doesn't look right,said.
Canales and Banales declined to be interviewed for this article.
In their response to the recusal motion, Celis' lawyers say it was filed too late, that taking campaign contributions from lawyers isn't grounds for recusal, and neither are the judge's social ties.
The real bloodshed might lie ahead, because last week Banales declined to step down.
â€œThe state presents no legal basis upon which I should recuse myself, he wrote.
This throws the recusal issue to Chief Supreme Court Justice Wallace Jefferson, who either will hear the issue himself or assign another judge.
In a full-blown hearing, reputations are likely to be harmed.
According to District Judge John Hyde of Midland, a recognized authority on recusals, several aspects of the legal drama playing out in Corpus Christi are noteworthy.
â€œI don't think I've ever seen a case where a recusal occurred at the end of a trial,â€ he said, after reviewing some pleadings. Normally, he said, appellate courts are the remedy for alleged trial bias.
â€œThe fact that the motion for a new trial is almost a mirror image of the recusal motion indicates those are matters for an appellate ruling, he said.
He said it's not customary for an administrative judge who grants a recusal to then assign himself the case. He also found the issues of outside influence raised by Valdez unsettling. On the whole, the entire case is not helping the image of the judiciary, Hyde said.