Travis County domestic violence judge faces allegations of bias, removed from case

Travis County

AUSTIN (KXAN) — New questions are being raised about whether a Travis County domestic violence judge can be fair.

County Court 4 Judge Dimple Malhotra was recused from a protective order case after an attorney, Steve Brand, filed a motion detailing her support for victim advocacy groups. Malhotra was appointed to the bench in 2019 to fill an expiring term and won the July runoff election.

Court records show two previous motions for recusal were denied. The third, defense attorneys say, could set a precedent for future protective order cases and limit the viability of the specialty court. Malhotra’s removal from the case was first reported by KUT.

“It’s a perception problem,” said Doug O’Connell, a defense attorney in Austin who was not involved in any of the recusal efforts. “The issue is not whether or not she is biased towards one side of the courtroom, the issue is whether or not individual litigants have a reason to be concerned that she can’t be fair and impartial when hearing cases.”

Malhotra did not respond to requests for comment from KXAN. A representative for her campaign said she could not issue a statement because of ethical rules.

Defense attorneys told KXAN that more recusal motions are likely to follow. Krista Chacona, president of the Austin Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, said she raised concerns about Malhotra’s advocacy with the judge.

Malhotra previously worked as Travis County’s lead prosecutor of domestic violence cases.

“It undermines the public’s confidence in the entire system,” Chacona said. “When you decide to make that step to transition from being an advocate representing a client with an interest, you are committing to putting all of that behind you.”

Travis County Attorney David Escamilla defended against the recusal motions on behalf of the state. He was unavailable for an interview but told KXAN \he believes Malhotra can be a fair judge.

Retired judge Charlie Baird, who now works as a defense attorney, also addressed Malhotra with concerns about her advocacy after her election to the bench. He sees why some lawyers would be concerned about Malhotra’s statements, but wants to give her a chance.

“I know her personally, and I think she’s going to dedicate herself to be a good judge,” Baird said.
Some of Malhotra’s supporters said the criticism of her experience is politically motivated.

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