Juanita Clark never saw it coming, at least not from her 31-year-old boss who was only two months into his tenure as a judge.
It was April 1, 1989, and Clark was the chief clerk for Harris County Justice of the Peace Court Precinct 1, Place 2. That morning, a constable’s deputy served her with a lawsuit from a catering business, which claimed she had not paid a bill worth about $1,600. Clark had enlisted the company a few months beforehand while organizing a retirement party for outgoing Judge Larry Wayne.
Clark called the business, insisting she had paid, but to no avail. She also looked to her co-workers for support and corroboration, but she got neither.
That’s because the whole thing was cooked up by Judge David Patronella, who got the business, the deputy and the rest of his staffers to play along as part of an April Fools’ Day prank.
“At the end of the day she started laughing,” Patronella recalled. “She did not think it was funny early in the day.”
Patronella, now 62, said he’s played other practical jokes during his 31 years on the bench. So the 30-plus people on his staff have long learned to stay on their toes, and they also know their boss likes to keep things light at times.
Fostering a relaxed, fun-loving environment at work is part of the appeal of Patronella, a lifelong area resident who is well-liked and respected by attorneys, fellow judges and even the litigants who appear in his court. He takes his job seriously, keeping the funny business out of the courtroom, but maintains an affable demeanor even on the bench.
“He talks to everybody. He’s very much a man of the people,” said Johanna Craft, who leads the Justice of the Peace Division for the Harris County District Attorney’s Office. “He is a wonderful human being and a great judge.”
Patronella, a Democrat, served four terms in the Texas Legislature before being appointed to the bench by the Harris County Commissioners Court in 1989. He won an election the following year and has continued to win every four years since, with no opposition since 2002.
Patronella earned the approval of his peers over the summer, when he was named Judge of the Year by the Justices of the Peace and Constables Association of Texas.
“It was a great honor,” he said. “I was tickled to get it. I was humbled to get it.”
Patronella is a product of the area, with his grandfather and great-grandfather having owned a grocery store in Shady Acres when he was a child. He lived in the Heights as an infant and grew up in Timbergrove Manor, attending school at Sinclair Elementary, Hamilton Middle School and Waltrip High School.
As an adult, Patronella has lived in Garden Oaks and Mangum Manor and now resides in Candlelight Estates with his wife, Donna. They have two grown children and two dogs, and Patronella also is a fish lover who keeps multiple aquariums at his courthouse downtown.
The judge also likes to read, travel and learn new languages. He speaks French, Italian, Spanish and a little bit of Russian and Turkish.
His courtroom, in the heart of the most diverse big city in the United States, is multi-lingual as well. Patronella speaks some Spanish and French in court and said he likes to employ clerks who speak multiple languages so they can serve all the people who appear on his docket.
Houston attorney Marc Ellison said Patronella is unique in that he tries to make his courtroom comfortable for attorneys and litigants, many of whom would prefer to be somewhere else. Craft said the judge is patient with those who might not understand the finer points of legal proceedings and gives their pleadings just as much consideration as those from seasoned attorneys.
“I think he’s very even-tempered and fair,” Ellison said. “I think he spends more time listening and giving people the ability to express their positions than some of the other judges do.”
A range of cases come before Patronella, but many of them are criminal misdemeanor cases, small claims, civil disputes, eviction cases and animal cruelty cases. Patronella said the eviction cases are especially difficult to deal with, because people’s livelihoods usually are at stake.
Patronella said he tries to be compassionate while applying the law. If a resident loses an eviction case in his court, he provides them information about nonprofit organizations that might be able to help.
“I try at the end of the day to feel like I’ve done my very best to make the right decision,” he said. “I may not always be right, but that’s what I try to do.”
The gravity of his job is one of the reasons why Patronella mixes in humor as often as possible. He tries to keep his staff happy so they’ll be friendly and courteous to the taxpayers they serve.
If a staffer has to be served with a bogus lawsuit now and again, so be it.
“Sometimes it’s so serious in here,” Patronella said. “When we step down from the bench, having a little bit of levity and humor sometimes makes the rest of it work a little bit better.”