By Shelley Kofler
Originally published by KERA on May 21, 2013
The Texas Senate and House have passed legislation that’s supposed to rein in judges who are abusing or misusing their authority.
It’s a problem KERA looked at last year in a special series, Texas Judges: Out of Order.
On the House floor last Friday it took less than five minutes to pass Senate Bill 209, legislation designed to make the State Commission on Judicial Conduct more effective.
The Commission’s job is to ensure the state’s 3,900 judges comply with standards in the Texas constitution.
The commission is responsible for investigating complaints and is supposed to issue sanctions or recommend removal when a judge’s misconduct goes too far.
But Andrew Wheat of Texans for Public Justice says the commission rarely punishes anyone.
“Our judicial conduct commission has operated as a kind of black box,” said Wheat.
“All but the worst punishments of judges for all but the worst abuses are kept secret from the public,” he said.
And Wheat isn’t sure this legislation is going to change that.
In KERA’s recent series, we reported that in 2011 the judicial commission dismissed most of the 1,100 complaints it received. A little over two dozen judges were sanctioned, but no one knew who they were because it was all done in private. Only six were publicly scolded but they kept their jobs.
Wheat agrees this bill makes progress by allowing voters to change the state constitution and allow harsher penalties for judges.
The legislation also gives lawmakers access to information previously withheld, so they can periodically review the commission and determine whether it’s doing its job.
The bill also requires commissioners to hold public hearings and to clearly explain “why” when they dismiss a citizen’s complaint.
But Wheat says some big things are still missing. Judges still won’t have to release the kind of information other public officials must disclose under the Texas Public Information Act.
“In a sense we are saying we are going to allow the judges to self-enforce what information they want to make public and I don’t see why the judiciary should be held to a different standard if in fact these are politicians who run for office in partisan campaigns and take campaign money,” said Wheat.
A Fort Worth woman KERA identified as Angela in our series told us the commission refused her open records request to see other complaints about a family court judge she thought was biased.
And Angela says she couldn’t prove to the commission that the judge was verbally abusive because there was no court record- associate judges aren’t required to record their proceedings. Angela wishes the legislation had changed that.
“I think the next step is that they make it a law to put digital recording devices in every associate and district court in Texas,” said Angela who asked us not to use her real name because her custody case is still in the courts.
“I think it would really put these judges in a system where they would behave in a better manner, because they would know you could pull those recordings any time,” she said.
One of the bill’s authors, Sen. Robert Nichols, a Jacksonville Republican, says the legislation tries to balance the need for transparency with the need to keep the courts running smoothly.
“If you publicly chastise a sitting judge you really damage his ability to preside,” said Nichols. “It really messes up the whole court.”
Nichols says citizens can get rid of bad judges. Just vote them out.
Wheat and Angela say that will only happen when citizens have more information about their judges, and they believe this bill is only a modest first step.
The Commission on Judicial Conduct declined to comment on how it could be affected by the new legislation.
Executive Director Seana said previously it’s just following the Texas Constitution and the Texas Government Code when it refuses to disclose information about judges.