September 27, 2005 -- University of Texas at Tyler students got a rare glimpse of the judicial appellate system Tuesday.
The 12th Court of Appeal justices stationed in Tyler heard four civil cases argued before them on the college campus.
Chief Justice Jim Worthen, who presided over the cases with justices Sam Griffith and Diane DeVasto, said citizens don't normally hear about the appellate aspect of the judicial system. He told the students that the 12th Court of Appeals, which hears cases from 17 East Texas counties, decides whether the trial judges properly applied the law in the verdicts they render in the appealed cases.
*One case involved law enforcement officers in a high-speed chase that ended in a collision. The justices will rule on the case, which dealt with the issue of summary judgment, at a later date. Summary judgment ends a lawsuit without going to trial when a judge finds there is no genuine issue of material fact and no need to send the matter to a jury.
The 12th Court heard a case Tuesday in which Texas Department of Public Safety, the state of Texas and DPS troopers Randy Loftin and Barry Evans are being sued by Misty Morales, on behalf of herself and her daughter Donna.
The troopers were involved in a high-speed chase that ended in the death of Donna, who was being driven home from kindergarten by her mother. The case was denied summary judgment by 369th District Judge Dwight Phifer in Cherokee County.
Attorney David Halpern, of Austin, said the public would suffer if people second-guessed the peace officers' difficult decisions that must be made on the spot.
Worthen said the court needed to weigh the risk of the pursuit versus the need to apprehend the suspect, who fled when the troopers tried to pull him over for speeding.
The pursuit began in a rural area but ended 20 minutes later in a populated subdivision.
James Rodman, of Austin, said his client, Ms. Morales was driving 30 mph when the trooper rammed into her car, leaving her daughter dead and her with serious injury. He said the officers knew the chase was inherently dangerous and could result in catastrophic circumstances, adding that there was no need to immediately apprehend the suspect.
Halpern said the man was speeding and ran a stop sign when he turned on his sirens. The reckless driver then evaded arrest. The car was suspected stolen and the suspect was throwing bags out during the chase. The officer pursued him to protect the public, the attorney said.
Former 12th Court Chief Justice Tom Ramey Jr. substituted for Justice DeVasto in the case because of a conflict of interest.
DPS and DPS Trooper Shannon Conklin are being sued for causing a wreck during a high-speed chase. Conklin had stopped a suspect for a traffic violation and found five pounds of marijuana in his vehicle, along with the smell of the burnt drug. The suspect fled and a pursuit ensued, ending with Conklin colliding with a woman's car.
Kamilla Stokes, of Austin, argued that the court should reverse the denial of summary judgment by 145th District Court Judge Campbell Cox II in Nacogdoches.
But Timothy Garrigan, of Nacogdoches, disagreed with her.
Ms. Stokes said the trooper was protected from personal liability because of official immunity, as it does when all governmental employees are performing discretionary duties.
She said the judges would have to weigh the risks of chase during a busy street and through school zones in the afternoon, versus the need to apprehend the suspect.
Garrigan said the risk outweighed the need for apprehension and the need for apprehension was exaggerated. The man and his car had been identified and he could have been arrested later.
Worthen said they must also consider that he had 12 prior felony convictions and was possibly high on drugs at the time of the chase.
In civil cases, attorneys can appeal the 12th Court's decision to the Texas Supreme Court while criminal cases can be appealed to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.
Only 1 percent of the court's rulings are reviewed by the higher courts, Worthen said.
If the court reverses the appeal, it means the trial judges used the wrong application of the law in their decisions. If they affirm the case, the justices agree with the trial judge's order.
Casey Knaupp covers county, state and federal courts. She can be reached at 903.596.6289. e-mail: email@example.com
*The original story stated there were two cases involved high-speed chases, but only one was reported in this article. The other two non-chase cases were deleted since they did not pertain to high-speed chases.