Other Voices: Bad judges need more than wrist slaps in Texas

The U.S. Constitution says precious little about a judge’s conduct other than Article III’s requirement of “good Behaviour.” That means it’s up to each state to ensure the integrity of its courts. Texas could do a better job by giving a kick in the pants to the agency that investigates complaints about bad judges and increasing its staff to handle that task.

The State Commission on Judicial Conduct should be embarrassed by the wrist slap it gave three current and eight former Harris County judges who routinely denied no-cost bail to thousands of poor defendants between 2009 and 2017. A federal judge only recently gave preliminary approval to a settlement in a lawsuit accusing Harris County of wrongly jailing indigent defendants solely because they couldn’t post bail.

The 11 judges sanctioned by the commission in August were so eager to reduce the number of personal bond requests granted by magistrates that they didn’t evaluate each bond request on its own merit. That’s an egregious violation of the state’s judicial canons, but the judges received one of the commission’s weakest punishments, “public admonition,” which is like waving your finger at a wayward child.

To make matters worse, the commission later retracted the sanctions, according to the judges’ attorney Nicole DeBorde, leaving the public to only speculate as to why.

Eight of the judges have either retired or lost their seats in recent elections, but they remain eligible to fill in as “visiting” judges. Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis said the admonishment and other complaints about former Judge Jim Wallace should disqualify him from ever overseeing another courtroom.

The complaints about Wallace were detailed in a letter signed by the county’s chief public defender, Alex Bunin, that listed numerous allegations of ethical breaches, including criticizing a female attorney’s frequent objections by suggesting she “stay standing through the whole trial and save your knees.”

Susan Brown, a regional administrative judge for the state, ruled Wallace was qualified to be a visiting judge because his infractions were “lower level.” Brown, incidentally, is also one of the former Harris County district judges named in the commission’s short-lived sanctioned.

Others were sitting judges Hazel Jones, Herb Richie and George Powell, and former judges Michael McSpadden, Denise Collins, Mark Ellis, Catherine Evans, Jeannine Barr and Katherine Cabaniss.

The commission’s meetings are closed and it doesn’t reveal how members vote, so it’s hard to know whether empathy played a role in the punishment the judges received. Six of the commission’s 13 members are judges appointed by the state Supreme Court, two are attorneys appointed by the State Bar of Texas, and the other five are citizens appointed by the governor.

Not only are the commission’s votes kept secret, so are many of its decisions. Thirty-five of the 82 reprimands, admonitions and warnings issued by the commission last year were kept private.

It makes sense to protect the reputation of a judge who might have been unfairly targeted in a frivolous complaint. But any time the commission decides a judge has done something wrong, it should name the judge and reveal the misdeed. Voters need that information for the next judicial election.

Only the Texas Supreme Court can remove a sitting judge in Texas, but the commission can suspend or censure a jurist. That it rarely takes those steps could mean Texas is blessed with an abundance of good judges. More likely it means bad judges are escaping the punishments they deserve.

Today's Bible verse

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.”

— John 1:1-3

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