Lawless

A feud in Hudspeth County causes disorder in the courts.

EAST OF EL PASO, in a weathered adobe courthouse in the Chihuahuan Desert, a feud has brought the Hudspeth County court, which hears class A or  B misdemeanors, to a standstill. County judge James A. Peace isn’t holding court, and county attorney Tom W. Chellis isn’t prosecuting cases, each in an effort to oust the other from office. In the meantime, anyone arrested in the county and charged with an offense like drunken driving, assault, or a minor drug possession—gets off without even a slap on the wrist.

Ask either official why he refuses to do his job, and you’ll get an answer as blustery as the West Texas wind. Peace says his feud with Chellis began soon after both men took office in 1995, when Chellis refused to attend county commissioners’ meetings without being compensated for his time. “He wanted us to hire him at $125 an hour to do the job he’d been elected to do,” the 66-year-old Peace told me as we sat in his empty courtroom. Peace retaliated by slashing Chellis’ budget (from $60,000 to $16,000) as well as his salary (from $30,000 to $6,000). “He’s like a rattlesnake,” the judge mutters, waving his hand in the direction of Chellis’ office just down the hall. “Real slippery.”

The 56-year-old Chellis sees a different reason for the judge’s wrath. They fell on opposite sides of the debate over whether a lucrative but potentially hazardous nuclear waste dump should be located near the county seat of Sierra Blanca. Chellis believes he raised the ire of the pro-dump judge when he threatened to sue to keep the waste out. “He obviously thought he could run me off,” says Chellis, whose office contains little more than a desk, a broken 1967 Selectric typewriter, a battered file cabinet, and law books he bought himself. “Until we get the staff and funds, I can’t prosecute cases unless I pay for them out of my own pocket, which I’ve done on occasion.” Chellis estimates that close to a thousand cases are on hold, and he worries that many will be dismissed because of the statute of limitations.

Peace has asked the El Paso district attorney’s office to investigate Chellis, and Chellis has asked the state Judicial Ethics Committee to investigate Peace—each hoping to run the other off. So far, no action has been taken. Until something changes, explains Sheriff Jerry Kresta, “We make arrests, folks get out of jail on bond, and that’s the end of it.”

So what do the citizens of Hudspeth County think? They seem resigned to wait until the next election to make a judgment. Peace plans to run for reelection in 2002—“I’m going to stand my ground,” he says—and Chellis, who is up for reelection in 2000, also refuses to step down. “I’ve faced worse situations than this,” he says. “I’ve been under enemy fire in Southeast Asia, pinned down in rice paddies with no supplies. Here, I’m playing for keeps.”

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