Judge ordered to stop courtroom paddling

June 11, 2008 3:47:29 PM PDT
A Cameron County justice of the peace can no longer give parents the choice of paying a fine or paddling their children in open court, a state district judge ordered Wednesday. Los Fresnos Justice of the Peace Gustavo Garza was sued by three families who say Garza left them with no real option when he told them they must pay a fine for their children's transgressions or paddle them in open court.

Until District Judge Abel Limas can resolve that case, he ordered Garza to halt the paddling.

The lawsuit was initially brought by the parents of a 15-year-old Los Fresnos girl who appeared in Garza's court in April for skipping school.

Garza presented her stepfather, Daniel Zurita, with the choice of paying a $500 fine or using one of two wooden paddles Garza displays in his courtroom. Zurita chose to paddle his stepdaughter, but said in an affidavit that he felt he had no choice.

Last week, Garza said offering paddling as an option was "lawful" and 98 percent of parents took that choice. He would not say how many children had been paddled in his courtroom.

Parents of two more children paddled in Garza's courtroom joined the lawsuit this week.

The State Commission on Judicial Conduct has reprimanded judges for such displays in the past.

"It's not OK," Seana Willing, the commission's executive director, said last week. "I'm not aware of any law that gives a judge the authority to administer corporal punishment or allow anybody to administer corporal punishment in his courtroom."

Other justices of the peace said it was unacceptable.

Bobby Contreras, a justice of the peace in neighboring Hidalgo County, said he prefers community service in lieu of fines. "There are other ways to get to these kids," he said.

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