How long can a trial judge wait to rule on a motion for summary judgment before getting mandamused by the intermediate appellate court?
The answer may be three years and five months. Harris County District Judge Ursula Hall, who has been chided by the state’s intermediate appellate courts at least 14 times for her delayed rulings since taking office in 2016, has once again drawn a reprimand.
Houston’s First Court of Appeals in a sua sponte order Monday issued a writ of mandamus to Judge Hall for her failure to rule on a motion for summary judgment in a foreclosure dispute that was filed April 15, 2020. The judge has also failed to rule on a motion to dismiss in the same case that was filed July 9, 2021.
“Any failure by respondent to fully and timely comply with the order of this court in this writ of mandamus — by 5 p.m. on Monday, October 2, 2023 — will result in the immediate initiation of a proceeding before this court for contempt,” the order reads.
Attorneys for Hunter-Kelsey, the party that sought mandamus relief — Steven J. Berry of Berry Odom in Fort Worth and Dylan Schultz of Bellamy & Schultz in Austin — declined to comment.
Messages sent to Judge Hall’s clerk, coordinator and secretary seeking comment from the judge did not receive responses.
A Texas Lawbook review of Texas appellate court records shows several dozen litigants have pursued mandamus relief in the wake of Judge Hall’s prolonged delays in ruling on motions before her.
Some of the most egregious examples of delayed rulings detailed in the petitions for writ of mandamus include a motion for summary judgment pending without ruling for four-and-a-half years. In other cases litigants pointed to a four-year delay in ruling on a motion to compel an independent medical evaluation, a three-year delay in ruling on a motion for a protective order, a 20-month delay in ruling on a motion to dismiss, and many more.
The State Commission on Judicial Conduct issued a public warning to Judge Hall in October 2020 for her failure to “set, hear, decide, and timely sign orders” in a case before her. The warning also gave Judge Hall some homework: two hours of additional legal training.
“In particular, the commission desires that Judge Hall receive this additional education in the area of timely management and administration of the court docket and handling recusal motions,” the warning states.
In the case that prompted the First Court of Appeals’ Monday order, Hunter-Kelsey had filed a petition for writ of mandamus April 10 and the court conditionally granted the writ in an opinion issued May 9.
Hunter-Kelsey filed a motion asking the court to issue the writ of mandamus on June 14, explaining the trial court had not responded to its request for a ruling on the still-pending motions.
The appellate court sent a letter to Judge Hall Sept. 5, informing her that it would issue the writ if she fails to comply with the court’s May order that she rule on the pending motions within 10 days.
During her time on the bench, Judge Hall’s performance has drawn criticism from many members of the Houston Bar Association.
In the most recently available judicial evaluation questionnaire conducted by the HBA — in which member attorneys rank the judges they practice before in a variety of ethical and professional categories — at least 50 percent of attorneys said Judge Hall “needs improvement” in every category.
The categories are:
- Follows the law
- Rules decisively and timely
- Is courteous and attentive
- Demonstrates impartiality
- Uses attorneys’ time efficiently
- Works hard and is prepared
- Has adapted procedures for scheduling and holding hearings and trials to ensure courts remain fully accessible
- Overall rating
The rankings are:
- Very Good
- Needs improvement
- No opinion
Of the 368 responses tallied for Judge Hall in the 2021 survey, 275 of those attorneys, or 74.7 percent, gave Judge Hall an overall rating of “needs improvement,” the lowest ranking of any civil district judge in Harris County.
The worst category for Judge Hall was “rules decisively and timely,” where 77.2 percent of attorneys cast a vote that she “needs improvement,” which was also the lowest ranking of any civil district judge in Harris County.
The case number is 01-23-00276-CV.