Houston federal judge bars female prosecutor from trial, sparking standoff with U.S. attorney’s office
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 Gabrielle Banks and Lise Olsen
Houston Chronicle

A federal judge banished a female prosecutor from his Houston courtroom last month, sparking a rare standoff between the new U.S. Attorney and a jurist with a history of sniping at lawyers, government officials and litigants.

U.S. District Judge Lynn N. Hughes, a 77-year-old appointed by President Ronald Reagan, has been criticized in the past for making comments perceived as racist or sexist in court.

U.S. Attorney Ryan K. Patrick argued that in twice ejecting the prosecutor before a trial, the judge exceeded his authority by attempting to rule on who can prosecute a case in his court. Hughes told Patrick that the prosecutor — who was involved in a previous case where the judge made controversial remarks — lacked ability and integrity, records show.

Federal judges have the discretion to excuse lawyers and issues ruling within the bounds of the constitution, and they do not have to provide their reasoning.

Hughes is known for delivering history lectures, issuing blunt critiques about improper courtroom attire and accusing the Justice Department of abusing government resources. Visitors to his court either perceive him as obnoxious and vindictive or witty and astute. He’s been called a loose cannon who lashes out at attorneys unaware of his expectations or revered as a no-nonsense defender of constitutionally-guaranteed rights. A 2017 Houston Bar Association poll found that lawyers felt he needed the most improvement in being impartial, following the law and being courteous to attorneys and witnesses.

The recent controversy involved Assistant U.S. Attorney Tina Ansari, the same prosecutor involved in a 2017 court session in which Hughes made remarks characterized by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals as “demeaning, inappropriate and beneath the dignity of a federal judge.”

RELATED: Federal judge criticized by appeals court for 'demeaning remarks

“It was a lot simpler when you guys wore dark suits, white shirts and navy ties… We didn’t let girls do it in the old days,” he said during the court session. The judge later told the Houston Chronicle he was speaking to a group of FBI agents, at least one of whom was a woman, and not the prosecutor. He said the comments were in reference to the exclusion of women historically and were not derogatory.

Hughes’ remarks were included in the U.S. Attorney’s appeal of his ruling, which the 5th Circuit overturned in July 2018, criticizing him. The appellate court also took the unusual step of ordering the presiding district judge to reassign the case to a different judge.

‘You will be disappointed’

The next time Ansari appeared before Hughes was on Jan. 14, as one of two prosecuting attorneys for an unrelated criminal case. At the pretrial hearing, Ansari announced her name to the court reporter and Hughes promptly excused her from court. She packed up and left.

Four days later at the start of a subsequent hearing on the same health care fraud case, Hughes immediately excused Ansari again.

She asked why, and judge declined to provide his rationale.

Ansari thanked Hughes and left the courtroom.

Patrick, the U.S. Attorney, who attended the Jan. 18 hearing, addressed the judge and asked for an explanation. He reminded Hughes it is the Justice Department’s duty to assign prosecutors to cases.

Hughes responded that Patrick had failed to withdraw a “dishonest brief” in the 2017 case that the judge said incorrectly quoted him as making the “girls” remarks to Ansari. Hughes said that in the past prosecutors have corrected mistakes when the court pointed them out, and Hughes claimed that Patrick and his staff had not followed suit.

The judge explained, “Ms. Ansari is not welcome here because her ability and integrity are inadequate,” according to a transcript.

Hughes declined to comment about Ansari’s ejection, but he told Patrick in court that the U.S. Attorney had conflated his earlier comment to Ansari about being unprepared for her case with his later comment about women’s attire, which Hughes said was not directed at the prosecutor.

Patrick’s office asked to stop the criminal trial while they appealed Ansari’s ejection. They also asked that Hughes recuse himself from the case, which the judge declined to do. The appeals court promptly denied the stay, and the fraud trial began without Ansari. A jury convicted the defendant on all counts.

Following the guilty verdict, Patrick said the judge exceeded his authority in excluding Ansari.

“My duty under the law as the U.S. Attorney is to prosecute all crimes in the Southern District and that includes assigning the attorneys I feel are appropriate for any individual case,” said Patrick, who is the top federal law enforcement official in the sprawling federal district. “A judge does not have the authority to decide who gets to appear in front of him and a judge certainly cannot retaliate against a lawyer based on their performance in a previous case where the 5th Circuit has already told him he was wrong.”

Patrick said his office is appealing Hughes’ decision to remove Ansari.

In the meantime, the defense lawyer in the criminal case filed a routine appeal, along with a secondary argument that the jury’s verdict was “null and void” due to the prosecution’s pending appeal of Ansari’s ejection. Hughes denied the request.

Comments by the judge challenged in earlier cases

Hughes’ unvarnished critiques from the bench include a 1994 statement that U.S. immigration officers were “flunkies” and “brown shirts”— a reference to Nazi supporters — due to their conduct in a passport fraud case.

In 2013, the Texas Civil Rights Project filed a complaint against Hughes based on a review of court transcripts in three separate cases they said showed a pattern and practice by Hughes of making what the nonprofit organization described as “racist” remarks.

The complaint focused on the judge’s comments about diversity, including his ruling that comments allegedly made by a Fort Bend Independent School District administrator to an African American employee were insignificant political speech. The administrator had allegedly told the employee that if Barack Obama were elected president, the Statue of Liberty would have its torch replaced by a piece of fried chicken.

The outcome of that complaint has not been disclosed in court records.

Hughes has garnered national attention for other remarks and rulings, including his dismissal of a sex discrimination case brought by a nursing mother who was prevented from pumping breast milk at work. An appeals court reversed Hughes’ ruling in that case.

In other cases, Hughes also has been known to dress down federal officials for what he considers inappropriate courtroom behavior and attire. Last year he snapped at a male FBI agent in a child pornography case for showing up in his courtroom without a tie.

In a 2016, he issued a rare “Order of Ineptitude” in a terrorism case involving a man accused of supporting ISIS overseas. His wrath was not for the alleged terrorist, but a federal prosecutor from Washington, D.C. that Hughes called “just one more nonessential employee.”

After he was berated by Hughes for not coming to his court in a suit and tie, the prosecutor apologized and explained he didn’t have a suit with him because he had just arrived in Houston from the Middle East. Hughes told him to retrieve his passport so he could verify the prosecutor’s customs’ stamps.

“So, what is the utility to me and to the people of America to have you fly down here at their expense, eat at their expense and stay at their expense when there are plenty of capable people over there, in this room plus over there?” Hughes asked. “You don’t add a bit of value, do you?”

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