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Texas Judges: Out Of Order

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The State Integrity Investigation on government corruption gives Texas an average grade of C for holding our judges accountable. But some citizens and lawmakers who’ve tested the system say that grade is far too high.

Today KERA’s Shelley Kofler begins a series of reports: Texas Judges: “Out of Order.” She takes a look what happened when one woman complained about a judge. The woman asked us not to use her name so we’ll call her Angela.

Angela is 30, a petite, attractive, professional with a college education. A little over two years ago she broke up with her long-time boyfriend and he filed for custody of their small son. Angela says she found herself in front of a Tarrant County associate judge who criticized her for having a child without being married to the wealthy father.

“She said, ‘Well didn’t she get herself knocked up by the right guy?’ So from the very start I had concerns about the judge,” Angela explained.

Angela said the judge yelled at her on more than one occasion and nearly each court appearance brought additional comments.

“I look Hispanic, though I’m not,” Angela said as she recalled an exchange. “We were discussing a particular document in the courtroom and the judge said to me, ‘Do you speak English?’ So, I responded, ‘Yes, I do speak English.’ And she said, ‘Clearly you don’t speak English. You have to be one of the most uneducated people I have ever seen in here.’”

State Commission on Judicial Conduct Website State Integrity Investigation’s report on judicial accountability in Texas PDF: Sunset Advisory Report: State Commission on Judicial Conduct 

Angela believed the judge had personal biases that lead to her making the baby’s father the primary custodian.

Angela wanted to know if other litigants had experienced similar treatment so she filed an open records request with the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, the agency that investigates and disciplines Texas judges. But when she asked for “all complaints” filed against the judge she was told that because the commission is a judicial agency it is not subject to the Texas Public Information Act.

“I was really shocked,” she said. “If I appear before a judge I should certainly have the right to find out, has this judge had many complaints filed against her and what are the complaints.”

The Judicial Conduct Commission’s executive director, Seana Willing, says she understands the frustration but she’d be breaking the law if she provided that information.

“There are strict confidentiality rules and they are in place not just in the Constitution but also in the Texas Government Code. They prohibit me, my staff and my commission members from disclosing confidential information unless a judge has received public sanctions,” Willing said.

Unable to learn about other complaints, Angela filed her own which lead to further frustration and concern. She says the investigator told her the judge was informed about her complaint which made Angela worry the judge would retaliate. Then the investigator told Angela the Commission couldn’t consider discipline because there was no record of the court proceedings which would have included the judge’s comments. As it turns out associate judges in Tarrant and other counties usually don’t have court reporters recording activities in their chambers.

Tarrant County Clerk Tom Wilder defends that practice saying it would be very expensive to record every family law proceeding and an associate judge’s decision can be appealed to the elected district judge who hired the associate. District judges do record what happens in their courts.

“I’d sure take that to the elected judge,” Wilder said. “These folks have to get elected just like I do and they are going to be sensitive to that kind of complaint.”

Maybe. But a recent report to state lawmakers also questions whether judges in Texas really are really held accountable. In 2011 the state commission investigated fewer than half of the eleven hundred (1,119) complaints it received. Only 34 or 3% lead to sanctions against judges and most of those were decided in private. Just seven cases resulted in the equivalent of public scoldings where the judges’ names were published. In the most serious case a judge was required to get “extra education.” The commission did not recommend the removal or retirement of any judge.

The commission’s Seana Willing says her agency is just “following the laws that are in place” and it does investigate the kind of behavior Angela described.

“If it’s an allegation that a judge yelled at a litigant, used profanity, made a reference that indicated maybe the judge was biased, or someone believes the judge used his position to benefit himself or someone else… we’ll open up a case,” Willing said .

But Willing says the Commission dismisses many complaints because litigants are simply angry about a judge’s ruling or there is no solid proof of bad behavior. Willing defends her agency adding the public’s right to know about elected officials should be balanced against the potential harm to judges.

“If it’s a small infraction that doesn’t harm anybody there is some benefit to them being able to get this matter addressed privately. Having it out there publicly might cost them their jobs. It may cost them an election.

Angela believes that perspective lets too many judges off the hook when they are “out-of order”.

“People are out there and they want to know what they’re doing in these courtrooms,” she said.

Tomorrow, KERA takes a look at what lawmakers may do to make Texas judges more accountable in a second report in the series, “Texas Judges: Out of Order.”

Former KERA staffer Shelley Kofler was news director, managing editor and senior reporter. She is an award-winning reporter and television producer who previously served as the Austin bureau chief and legislative reporter for North Texas ABC affiliate WFAA-TV.