Gabrielle Banks and Lise Olsen
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.
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.
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.
judges have the discretion to excuse lawyers and issues ruling within
the bounds of the constitution, and they do not have to provide their
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
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
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’
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.
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.
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.
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.
judge explained, “Ms. Ansari is not welcome here because her ability
and integrity are inadequate,” according to a transcript.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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
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?”