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SAN ANGELO, Texas - There has been little in the ringing voice or confident expression of 51st District Judge Barbara L. Walther that hints she is at the center of a firestorm, although this is a moment that could define her career.

The fate of 416 children seized from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints' ranch is in her hands.

Today, Walther must reign in the first major court hearing of the biggest custody case in Texas history, a mammoth undertaking bringing together hundreds of attorneys, parents, and onlookers for arguments over keeping the children in the state's care.

"We need to handle these cases on an individual basis, family by family, parent by parent," Walther said in court earlier this week, gesturing to several gaggles of attorneys. "I'm not going to adopt any hard and fast rules. I want your input."

In the five-county 51st District of Texas, over which she presides, the 55-year-old jurist is respected by prosecutors and defense attorneys.

"She's fair minded but bare fisted," said William Moore, a San Angelo defense attorney. "She's easygoing but she doesn't take any guff."

Not everyone is happy with the way the judge has handled the FLDS case thus far.

Walther signed a warrant allowing authorities to take the children into state custody based on telephone calls to a local family violence shelter from a 16-year-old girl who has yet to be found. Another search warrant she signed let police confiscate boxes and boxes of evidence - including personal items like photo albums, family trees, clothing and bed linens - from the YFZ Ranch and the FLDS temple.

Authorities may try to build a criminal case from the evidence gathered, but can't look at any of it until a special master appointed by Walther gives the go-ahead.

"This is a classic case of government overreaching," said Jeff Blackburn, lead counsel for the Innocence Project for Texas. "The amount of human and emotional damage [from those warrants] is way out of proportion to what the court said it was trying to accomplish."

Still, around these parts of west Texas, folks say Walther will give a "fair shake," Moore said. "When you come out of the court - win or lose - you know you had a fair trial."

San Angelo attorney Guy Choate remembers his first time in Walther's court. He was planning to help a colleague write a list of precise questions the jury had to answer. "I was planning to go over there and do some heavy lifting and I got over there and she'd pretty well done it," said Choate. "She's a very capable judge."

The massive case is not the first challenge Walther has faced.

She contracted polio when she was 15 months old and still wears a brace and strides with a limp. Many years of her childhood were spent recuperating from operations, recalled Joe Mertz, an old family friend.

Walther is bright and confident and has never been held back by the impediment, he said. She enjoys scuba diving off of the coast of Mexico.

"There is nothing she can't do," Mertz said. "Her parents instilled that in her."

The daughter of an oil service and supply businessman, Walther, a member of First United Methodist Church, earned a bachelor of arts degree in political science at the University of Texas at Austin, took a law degree from Southern Methodist University and worked as an attorney in Dallas.

She and her husband, radiologist Steven Walther, returned in 1983 to San Angelo, where they reared two children, now grown.

According to Mertz, they are among the most respected families in west Texas.

In the Lone Star state, judges are elected to four-year terms. In 1992, Walther beat out favorite Robert Post for a seat on the state bench, becoming the first Republican elected to the job in that district. Since then, she has run unopposed. This is the last year of her fourth term and she is expected to run unchallenged again.

The judge has an exceptional record, according to west Texas lawyers. During the past 14 years, records show the Texas appellate court has reversed only a handful of her decisions.

As the only judge for the 51st District, which encompasses many small towns and a wide rural area, Walther has handled all kinds of cases, including child custody matters and criminal prosecutions.

Post, the San Angelo attorney Walther defeated for the judge's job in 1992, said she will not be a "rubber stamp" for the state. "She'll make them prove it up," he said.

Another San Angelo attorney's quote about Walther: "She doesn't suffer fools gladly."

No matter how she rules in the FLDS case, or cases, Walther can expect her decisions to be challenged on appeal. "I guarantee she's been studying the law," said Post. "She's got the whole country looking at her."


* KRISTEN MOULTON contributed to this report.