Politics

Ted Poe’s Final Courtroom Drama

Retiring Texas congressman leaves unfinished fight for victims of crime

Rep. Ted Poe, a retiring Texas Republican, used to be a criminal court judge. His career in Congress shows it. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Within minutes of sitting down behind the desk in his Capitol Hill office, Rep. Ted Poe dashed back out the door for his appointment with an FBI agent down the hall.

The congressional inquiry into Peter Strzok, accused of political bias in investigating ties between President Donald Trump’s campaign and Russia, was plastered across every screen in the office suite, if not the whole building. 

“The congressman may have to duck in and out,” Poe aide Karina Erickson had repeated apologetically. “He just can’t miss this questioning.”

He reappeared moments later on a TV screen in the corner, settling in behind the wood paneled lectern for his shot at Strzok. Though equally incensed at the agent as some of his Republican colleagues, Poe hardly mentioned the Russia investigation and largely set aside the details of his behavior.

He concerned himself more with the fairness of the justice system at large — a matter closer to his heart, as a former prosecutor and criminal court judge in Houston for more than three decades.

“In our justice system things must be fair, and things must look fair,” Poe said, the audio on the TV screen faintly audible, his staffers watching closely. “Your words, to me, prove your bias, your attitude proves your bias, your arrogance proves your bias.”

The seven-minute scene could have taken place in Poe’s old courtroom. While serving on the bench, he was known to talk to defendants about their actions, often at length. He never wanted to see the same defendant twice, and he believed remorse could set them straight.

Since Poe first ran for Congress in 2003, the Texas Republican has never quite left his old profession behind him. His friends still call him “judge,” and so does the placard outside his office. The walls are a collage of photos of his old courtroom, alongside framed magazine profiles and courtroom sketches from his days on the bench.

Perhaps more than anyone in Congress, Poe has legislated with a jurist’s touch. More than anything else, Poe says, he’s proud to have given a voice on the Hill to victims of crime and human trafficking, and championed legislation that aimed to plug holes in the justice system he came to know all too well as a judge.

Warming the bench

Poe sat back at his desk, but his eyes stayed fixed on the screen in the corner.

“No matter what, a bad law eventually shows up at the courthouse,” he said. “So what do you do as a judge? You don’t make law from the bench. You get in the House of Representatives and you change those laws.”

Among all the lawyers on Capitol Hill, only 15 current members of Congress became judges before their careers in Washington, according to a Congressional Research Service report.

In Houston, Poe achieved local celebrity in his old career for his unorthodox approach to justice: He would sentence shoplifters to hold a sign in public confessing their theft, or arrange for abusive spouses to apologize on the courthouse steps.

“He always wanted them to know there was a victim at the other end of their actions,” said Elaine Stolte, who worked for Poe for nearly two decades while he was on the bench.

In one case, he ordered a car thief, who stole and wrecked an old woman’s sedan, to lend her his souped-up Pontiac until her car was back from the shop. “She called me the next day and said she never had so much fun driving this Trans Am around Houston,” Poe said.

Hill staffers often tell the stories of Poe’s courtroom circus with irreverent chuckles and grins. Personally, Poe has always had a bit of an oddball reputation on the Hill: He’s known to strut around in ornately decorated cowboy boots, and when he can get away with it, he’s liable to sign his name with a drawing of a teepee representing his initials.

But to Poe, his novel sentences “didn’t have anything to do with a sense of humor.” They were specific to the crime and often designed to induce public shame and regret. He often invited victims to speak about the impact of the crime.

“Justice needs to mean something. It needs to mean something to the offender and to the victim,” Poe said. “And to the public at large.”

Closing the gift shop

Before his last term ends, Poe is hoping to notch a few more legislative wins.

In 2005, Poe helped found the Victims’ Rights Caucus, which has led efforts to support victims of human trafficking, sexual assault and other crimes. One of his key legislative accomplishments came in 2014, when he helped write a law that provides legal help to victims of human trafficking with fines collected from convicted traffickers.

Recently, he’s taken up cause with feminist college activists to tackle the issue of campus sexual assault, speaking often about the issue on the House floor.

He's also pushing forward a bill to stop the federal government from using the Crime Victims Fund, which recompenses victims with money collected from criminal penalties, as a “slush fund” for other purposes. Another bill of his would continue funding programs that support child abuse victims by reauthorizing the Victims of Child Abuse Act, which expires Sept. 30.

Even at half-empty as his staff clears everything for move-out, Poe’s Washington office is still remarkably cluttered. His staff calls his office the “gift stop of Houston.” It feels like the inside of his right brain. Shelves are lined with row after row of miscellaneous Texas tchotchkes, books about topics from terrorism to Texas history, and framed photos of his friends, family and his famous Jeep.

“The child up there, that’s Kevin Wanstrath,” Poe said, pointing to a photo on one of his bookshelves. In July 1979, 14-month-old Wanstrath was killed as part of a hit on his parents, John and Diana. Poe prosecuted the case against their killers with the photo of Kevin on his desk.

“I had it in my office as a prosecutor after the case, had it in my office as a judge, have it in my office now,” Poe said. “It’s there to remind me why I do what I do.”

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