What an honor to receive an assignment for a legal editorial piece published by Conroe City Lifestyle.
I edit books for attorneys, among many other author types, and offer SEO-friendly web content and blogging for those in legal and business environments. But it took a “different” writing focus to deliver a journalistic cover feature about ten women judges who hold court in Montgomery County, Texas.
This article was published in May 2023, and I was highly impressed by the backstories of our “women of the bench.” What an education to learn how they serve the public with such passion in our county courts of law.
Get to know the woman judges of Montgomery County who serve us through all stages of life and circumstances. They share poignancy and humor straight from the bench, and you just might learn something new about our judiciary!
Kristin Bays—284th District Court
Judge Bays earned a B.S. in English and Education from Baylor University in 1990 and completed a Juris Doctor (J.D.) at Baylor Law School in 1993. “I loved law school,” she says. “It was all about figuring out where the puzzle pieces fit. Learning the advanced rules and strategizing how to win was a lot like playing chess.”
She decided the next level of chess was becoming a judge after practicing law for 25 years, first with a law firm and then in private practice with her husband, Randy Bays, and also serving as president of the Montgomery County Bar Association.
“I’ve always wanted to be a judge, and I love what I do,” says Judge Bays. She presides over civil cases only. “When people sue each other, it presents a challenge. Attorneys and judges must know the law, be prepared for changes in direction, and expect surprises. The public is welcome to visit the court anytime and watch the proceedings. It’s a constitutional right and an open courts provision, so come see what’s happening.”
Claudia Laird—County Court of Law 1, Probate/Guardianship
Judge Laird’s childhood dream was to attend the Air Force Academy and become a jet pilot. However, doctors and attorneys were revered in her small town, which influenced her to go into law. After 12 years on the bench, her motto is, “Work hard and never stop learning.”
Judge Laird’s court focuses on probate, guardianship, and mental health cases. “We are committed to checking in on our wards at least once a year, the majority of whom are disabled and/or vulnerable,” says Judge Laird. “We have a court investigator and also rely on community volunteers in our Adult Guardianship Assistant Program, who help immensely.”
The program is ahead of its time. The Governor may be signing legislation this month that statutorily mandates such a system. Judge Laird had the forethought to implement the reporting and accounting component before it was required. “This is kind of a new thing for our county and a good thing,” she says.
Kathleen Hamilton—359th District Court Criminal Court/Veterans Court
Judge Hamilton was raised Catholic, loved the nuns who taught her and wanted to be one when she grew up. Instead, she got her M.A. in French and taught high school French. At the age of 32, she decided to go to law school.
As a law student at the UH Law Center, she was President of the Student Bar and edited the Law Center’s 16-page monthly newspaper while parenting her six-month-old and four-year-old and commuting from her home with her husband in Conroe to Houston. She interned at the Montgomery County Attorney’s Office and was hired as soon as she graduated. She served ten years as a prosecutor and became First Assistant District Attorney. She then went to work as Managing Attorney for the Montgomery County Women’s Center for five years, focusing on protective orders and family law. She was elected judge in 2002.
Besides a full load of felony criminal cases, she presides over four specialty courts in the evenings. Her newest initiative came in 2015 with the Veteran’s Treatment Court. It is a 15-month program for veterans who have been charged with criminal offenses and have PTSD or Traumatic Brain Injury. She also presides over Adult DWI Court, Adult Drug Court, and Juvenile Drug Court. “The adult courts all begin in the evenings so that participants can keep their jobs during the day,” says the judge.
This is Judge Hamilton’s 21st year on the bench. In addition, she’s on the Board of the Conroe Symphony Orchestra, serving as President, on the Board of the Dispute Resolution Center, and on the Advisory Board of the Assistance League of Montgomery County. She is part of a team that teaches newly elected Texas judges each year in Austin.
Echo Hutson—County Court of Law 4 Criminal Misdemeanors/Domestic Violence Court
As an undergrad at the University of Alaska, Judge Hutson worked as a legal assistant at the U.S. Attorney’s office. “The Criminal Division Chief told me, ‘You were born to be a prosecutor. Go into criminal law,’” says Judge Hutson.
She worked with a joint-task force to solve a cold case later aired by Dateline NBC. “Community members at the funeral wanted closure, and that perspective changed everything for me,” says Judge Hutson. “I wanted to help those without a voice.”
She was hired by the Montgomery County District Attorney’s office in early 2009. She became the Domestic Violence Chief and wrote a grant in 2011 to fund the county’s first dedicated domestic violence prosecutor.
Judge Hutson was sworn in as a judge on January 1, 2023. In 2022, Sam Houston State University published a study of Montgomery County’s specialized domestic violence Court, comparing it nationally and in Australia and the UK. The study concluded, “Montgomery County’s DV Court is one of the national high performers with a good success rate due to these efforts.”
Patty Maginnis—435th District Court, Criminal/Drug Court
Growing up, Judge Maginnis had three career ideas: high school teacher, prosecutor, and veterinarian. She became a high school teacher at an American school in Mexico and then went to law school. She became a prosecutor in Montgomery County in 1997 and has five dogs, three chickens, and two cats— the closest she’ll come to becoming a veterinarian.
Judge Maginnis served fourteen years as a prosecutor and seven years as a defense attorney. In 2002, she prosecuted during the day and held municipal court at night, and knows most of her colleagues on the bench. “Many of us worked together on either side, and that’s the reason we work so well together in the judiciary.” But unlike the role of an attorney, she compares being a judge to a home plate umpire, watching the whole game unfold without the tunnel vision of a lawyer—impartial and unbiased.
“Our judicial system is about providing a fair venue for both parties,” says the judge. She sees people on their absolute worst days in Criminal and Drug Court and wants defendants to know they can walk into her courtroom and get a fair hearing.
As for handling the most difficult cases, “First responders, trauma surgeons, and perhaps criminal court judges learn to compartmentalize. A friend shared a little trick that helps. She takes off her lanyard and hangs it on a hook when she walks into her home. There it stays along with all the day’s activities so that she can happily interact with her family,” says the judge.
Jennifer Robin, 410th District Court/Family Law
“My father was a lawyer, and my mother was an English teacher and then stayed home with us,” says Judge Robin. She was influenced by both parents during a 10th-grade English assignment, having the choice of being the prosecutor of the defense for Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter. She decided law would be a good career path.
She was elected presiding judge for the 410th District Court in November 2016 when Montgomery County was streamlining and specializing in jurisprudence initiatives. Today, her docket focuses 100% on family court, overseeing cases that reflect some of the most difficult times of life for parents and children. “Children are individual human beings, not property, and I put their best interests first,” she says.
Amy Tucker—County Court Law 3, Family Law/Child Welfare
“I decided on family law and child welfare during the last class of my last semester of law school, not liking law school at all,” says Judge Tucker. “However, I was introduced to an area of law I didn’t know existed involving child welfare. My interest in the plight of foster children stayed with me.”
Trauma-involved courts like hers are trying to make a difference for foster children in Texas. “I encourage everyone to volunteer with any organization trying to help foster parents, caregivers, and children.”
Scharlene Valdez—County Court of Law 6
Judge Valdez always had a passion for law and worked her way up. She started as a paralegal at a large firm in Beaumont, where a wonderful, inspiring, and encouraging personal injury attorney encouraged her to go to law school at the age of 32. She has now served 21 years on the bench.
“I preside over a new county court created two years ago by the Montgomery County Commissioners with three dockets,” says Judge Valdez. She was actually appointed early and took the bench before her term started due to the volume of caseloads.
Lisa Michalk—221st District Court
Judge Michalk was appointed to the bench by Governor Rick Perry as a visiting judge and was elected to the 221st District Court in 2010. She helped form the Mental Health Court for Montgomery County and became a supporter of the Montgomery County Children’s Advocacy Center.
She also served as vice president of the Montgomery County Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, serves on the Bail Bond Board, among other affiliations, and enjoys her long service to the community.
Associate Judge Jacqueline Bello—221st District Court
Judge Bello served as Assistant District Attorney at the Montgomery County District Attorney’s Office from 2017 until January 2023, when she became the associate judge for Judge Lisa Michalk’s 221st District Court. She briefly interned at the 221st District Court in 2016. Judge Bellow is the designee on the Bail Bond Board for the same court.
She graduated with distinction from the University of Oklahoma (a proud Boomer) with a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism as a Public Relations major and a German minor and attended South Texas College of Law in Houston.
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