State Commission on Judicial Conduct must strike balance between confidentiality, openness at public hearing

By Angela Morris
Texas Lawyer
Originally published Aug. 11, 2014

Seana Willing, executive director of the state agency that disciplines judges, has mixed feelings about holding the commission’s inaugural public hearing on Wednesday.

“I think there’s a little bit of excitement about it, but also anxiety in that: What if nobody shows up? Then what? But we’re excited that people will show up and will provide some helpful information that we can use in the future,” said Willing. “We just have never done this before, so we don’t really know what to expect.”

Although this is the first hearing, the State Commission on Judicial Conduct will hold one every two years from now on, following a requirement in a 2013 law. The SCJC investigates allegations of judicial misconduct and disciplines judges. At least 12 commissioners will attend the hearing, along with SCJC staff, said Willing.

According to the Government Code, public comments are not to “compromise the confidentiality of matters considered by the commission.”

But Willing said she’s unsure how to prevent it.

“Even though the statute is specific about what the scope of the hearing is going to be about—meaning the commission’s mission and procedures—it’s not clear just from that that people can’t talk about cases and particular judges and particular investigations,” Willing explained.

She added about commission members and staff, “We have to make sure we are not commenting or acknowledging anything of a confidential nature.”

People who want to comment must complete a form before the hearing, which is scheduled for Aug. 13 at 11 a.m. at the Texas Capitol Extension, room E2.028.

The Legislature required the public hearings in 2013 when accepting recommendations from the Sunset Advisory Commission, which reviews state agencies and recommends improvements. Senate Bill 209 also ordered the SCJC to provide more access for sunset review, allowed a judge to appeal any type of sanction, and more. Senate Joint Resolution 42 proposed a constitutional amendment to expand the sanctions that the SCJC may issue after formal proceedings. Placed on the November 2013 ballot as Proposition 9, voters approved it by 84.65 percent, according to a Texas Secretary of State race summary report.

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