.Every district courtroom in the state of Texas is a kingdom in its own right. The Potter County District Courts in Amarillo is no exception. In these courtrooms, law is to be administered under the watchful and impartial purview of a District Judge.

But what of the district judge who begins to use his power in ways that can only be defined as brazen partiality and favoritism? This was the case with 320th District Judge Don Rexford Emerson in the years 1998 to 2002.

Good Fortune For Whom the Judge Favors

As a constitutional right, indigent defendants charged with a felony offense in the state of Texas are appointed an attorney to represent them in court. In Texas, only a judge has the authority to make these appointments.


In making these matches, a judge must “ensure that appointments are allocated among qualified attorneys in a manner that is fair, neutral, and nondiscriminatory." (Tex. Code Crim. Proc. art. 26.04)

In the years 1999 and 2000, an average of 38 attorneys received court appointments from Judge Don Emerson of 320th Judicial District Court. But of these 38 attorneys, there were three who were given more than 45% of criminal court appointments from Judge Emerson.

These three lawyers--two men and a woman--who were receiving the disproportionate share of appointments had previously worked together as prosecutors in the Potter County District Attorney's Office and shared office space when they left public service.

John Lezell Balentine

One of these favored three attorneys had been assigned to Judge Emerson's court as the lead prosecutor prior to leaving the district attorney's office in August 1998.

While still employed as a prosecutor, he was tasked with handling the high-profile capital murder case involving a triple homicide committed by John Lezell Balentine. Three weeks prior to leaving the district attorney's office, he appeared before Judge Emerson representing the State of Texas at Balentine's arraignment. A day after leaving public employment, the attorney was appointed to represent Balentine in his capital murder prosecution, creating a clear and convincing conflict of interest. Yet the attorney refused to withdraw from the case.


Only after the State was compelled to file a motion to remove the attorney did he agree to withdraw and permit substitution of counsel. That didn't stop the lawyer from billing the county $5,000 for 150 hours of work he claimed to have logged on the case, even before Balentine was indicted. Judge Emerson approved the payment with no questions asked.

Additional documentation showed that the lawyer received a total of 289 appointments from Judge Emerson during the years 1999-2000 for a total of $142,199 in attorney's fees. Eventually, Judge Emerson was called upon to address these issues before the State Commission on Judicial Conduct and testified under oath that he had appointed the attorney 'in an effort to assist the lawyer as he began his private practice.

READ MORE: The District Attorney Who Got Away With It All  

John Lezell Balentine would later be convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death. He was executed on February 9, 2023 amid speculations of a trial muddied by racial bias and ineffective counsel from his trial attorneys. But what was the impact had by Judge Emerson's appointment of the former prosecutor? And more importantly, why had this egregious disregard for ethics and the rights of the accused never been discussed in the years that followed?

A Public Warning Swept Under The Rug

Over time, reports of Judge Emerson's favoritism and disregard for process reached the state commission for judicial conduct. The committee investigated all the aforementioned incidents and more, going so far as to bring Judge Emerson to testify before them.

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The committee issued a public warning regarding Judge Emerson in June 2002. The published findings are available on the committee's website for public viewing.

But the most scandalous aspect of the events unfolding in 320th district court was this: While this misconduct would warrant state sanctions and criticism in legal circles, it would prove to be unreported by the media and unnoticed by the general public.

It was simply a troubling chapter that would be swept under a rug in the Potter County District Courthouse. Never to see the light of day again.

Judge Emerson retired from 320th District Court in 2018 and now resides in Denton, Texas.

All three of the attorneys who received preferential treatment from the judge are still practicing law in Amarillo today.


Editor's note: this is the third installation of an ongoing series. You may read more stories of the scandals that changed Amarillo here.

Amarillo's Biggest Scandals

Amarillo, Texas is a big little city, but it has had its share of scandals. From murder to beef to infidelity, the drama has been thick.

Gallery Credit: Lori Crofford

Amarillo Cursed Building - Westgate Mall

These are the many stores of Westgate Mall that have come and gone!

Gallery Credit: Lori Crofford

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