SAN ANGELO, Texas Most of the cases that come across Judge Barbara Walther's bench are quiet affairs: divorces, drunken-driving violations, the kind of small-time disputes that sprout in places where land and livestock are more plentiful than people.
But in the past two weeks, the no-nonsense state district judge has found herself at the center of one of the most convoluted, unruly custody cases in U.S. history, herding hundreds of lawyers while dozens of reporters camp out on the lawn of the historic columned courthouse that sits in the center of San Angelo.
Those who know her say Walther did what she always does. She needled yammering lawyers, refocused wandering questions and then ruled. No drawn-out testimony, no taking the case under advisement, no lengthy written ruling later.
After 21 hours of testimony over two days, Walther took a short break, then ruled Friday night. The 416 children taken from a polygamist sect and placed in state custody will stay there, she said. Walther also ordered all the children and parents involved to take DNA tests.
"She will rule, and that is something in a judge's personality that lawyers really appreciate," said Guy Choate, a longtime San Angelo attorney. Her attitude is, "I may be right or may be wrong, but I'm not uncertain."
Walther was the first Republican elected to cover the five-county area that includes San Angelo and sparsely populated adjacent counties, including the polygamist sect's Schleicher County, when she was elected in 1992.
She hasn't had an opponent since.
The 55-year-old comes from a longtime San Angelo family and is married to a prominent radiologist in the city of 90,000.
Walther survived the polio epidemic that slammed San Angelo in the 1950s, infecting the town's people at a rate of 1 in 124. She still wears a leg brace.
Her manner that of a self-proclaimed "simple country judge" helped control a chaotic case that includes hundreds of lawyers, one for each child and for the parents.
"We're going to handle this the best we can," she said at the outset of a hearing required to continue the state's temporary custody.
There were so many lawyers that an auditorium with a video link had to be added because the deep courtroom that sat roughly 200 people wasn't enough. Throughout the hearing, lawyers popped up from their seats to make objections, often simultaneously, and they queued up in the aisle or in the front of the auditorium for a chance to raise their objections or question witnesses.
It was often difficult to determine which attorney should be allowed to talk next, and at one point, she called on an attorney who wasn't objecting.
"This is like a cattle auction. If you scratch your nose, you bought it," Walther said to a chorus of laughs.
Walther peppered the hearing with humor, easing frustrated attorneys and nervous witnesses.
When one of the lawyers sniped that he didn't understand why another attorney was following a particular line of questioning, Walther quipped, "If I knew the purpose of any lawyer's question, I wouldn't be sitting here."
To get a soft-spoken mother in a pioneer-style dress to speak loudly enough for everyone to hear, Walther leaned toward the witness box and said, "Pretend you're yelling at a child far, far away." The otherwise stoic woman smiled.
Walther, who could not be reached for comment Saturday, has a lot of experience with family law cases. Before being elected in 1992, the Southern Methodist University law graduate served as a special master in family law, a position that allowed her to hear parts of family law cases in the place of a judge.
Choate, who isn't involved in the polygamist custody case but has tried other cases before Walther, said, "She was really made for this case and I thought did a terrific job under incredibly adverse conditions."
Still, Walther made it clear she doesn't want to preside over a similar circus in the future. The hundreds of children in state custody will get individual hearings before June 5 to determine whether they'll have to remain in foster care or have a chance to go home.
"Trust me," she said Friday. "I'm going to do everything I can to avoid a mass hearing in the future."