TEXAS Gov. Greg Abbott can’t stay out of the press lately, and it’s disturbing.
At LIT, we recently wrote about Abbott, who is trying to condone his non-lawyer Judge Oakley comments and play down the racism and sexism that’s rife in his State of Texas governmental departments, which Laws In Texas has been tweeting about a lot recently @lawsintexasusa
Now we have another Texas-sized State Commission of Judicial Conduct (SCJC) debacle in the sanctioning of a judge. The SCJC is comprised of Texas judges, lawyers and citizens. Below you’ll learn that the citizens on the panel were dismissed because Abbott’s law did not align with their views in this case involving same-sex marriage in Texas.
Waco judge sues state agency after receiving public warning for refusing to officiate same-sex marriages
Dianne Hensley, who received a warning last month from the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, will be represented by First Liberty Institute, a high-profile religious liberty law firm with close ties to the Texas Attorney General’s Office.
Published; Dec. 17, 2019
A Waco judge who received a public warning last month for refusing to officiate same-sex marriages filed a lawsuit against the state agency that issued the warning, claiming the governmental body violated state law by punishing her for actions taken in accordance with her faith.
The First Liberty Institute, a high-profile Plano-based religious liberty law firm closely aligned with the Texas Attorney General’s Office, will represent the judge, Dianne Hensley, in the lawsuit filed Tuesday in McLennan County District Court.
Shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court asserted the constitutional right for same-sex couples to marry in the landmark 2015 Obergefell decision, Hensley refused to officiate any weddings. But in August 2016, she decided to resume officiating weddings between men and women, and said she would “politely refer” same-sex couples who sought her services to others in the area.
“For providing a solution to meet a need in my community while remaining faithful to my religious beliefs, I received a ‘Public Warning.’ No one should be punished for that,” Hensley said in a statement.
Hensley, who claims the state violated the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act, is seeking a declaratory judgment from the court decreeing that any justice of the peace may refuse to officiate a same-sex wedding “if the commands of their religious faith forbid them to participate in same-sex marriage ceremonies.”
The public warning issued by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct Nov. 12 did not carry a fine. But Hensley claims the investigation and warning “substantially burdened the free exercise of her religion, with no compelling justification.” She seeks damages of $10,000.
Her attorney on the case, Jonathan Mitchell, is a former solicitor general of Texas.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who has made religious liberty a priority of his office, has worked alongside the First Liberty Institute in the past, including on a lawsuit against the city of San Antonio after it banned Chick-fil-A from opening a location in its airport. That office typically represents state agencies in court, but in some cases has chosen not to do so.
A spokesman for the attorney general’s office said the State Commission on Judicial Conduct is an independent agency authorized to represent itself in legal proceedings, “which it typically does.” It has not yet asked the attorney general’s office for representation, but can, he added.
The interim executive director of the State Commission on Judicial Conduct said the agency had not yet been served with the lawsuit and had no comment.
Hensley’s case has already generated significant public attention. Two members of the commission, who were appointed last year by the governor, claim he ousted them after they indicated they would vote to sanction Hensley. A spokesman for the governor said all nominations are based on merit.
Ricardo Martinez, Equality Texas CEO, said in a statement that as a justice of the peace, Hensley took an oath “to serve all Texans.”
“These elected officials continue to waste taxpayer money in an obsession to discriminate against gay and transgender Texans. This is not what Texans want or expect from elected officials,” Martinez said.
“Discrimination of any kind is unacceptable. Their actions are mean spirited, futile, a waste of taxpayer money and most importantly, it’s wrong.”
Appointees claim Gov. Greg Abbott ousted them from board for voting to sanction judge who refused to perform same-sex marriages
After those two appointees left the commission, it handed down just a warning to the judge, Dianne Hensley.
Published; Dec. 5, 2019
Two former members of the state’s disciplinary board for judges claim Gov. Greg Abbott ousted them for initially voting to sanction a Waco judge who refused to officiate same-sex weddings, the Houston Chronicle first reported Thursday.
Abbott appointed Amy Suhl, a retired technology executive, and Maricela Alvarado, a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army, to the commission in June 2018 for terms set to expire in 2023. But in a highly unusual move, the governor’s office ultimately excluded them from a list of appointees up for confirmation from the Texas Senate, effectively axing them from the agency.
The appointees told the Chronicle the governor’s office claimed he had “decided to go in a different direction,” but they believe they were ousted because they had favored penalizing Judge Dianne Hensley, who has publicly stated that she only officiates marriages between men and women. Earlier this week, the commission announced it had voted to publicly warn Hensley, a relatively light punishment. The commission has the power to suspend judges.
“What the governor’s doing is wrong,” Suhl told The Texas Tribune on Thursday. “They’re not supposed to be trying to coerce people to vote a certain way. It’s just not right.”
Suhl told the Tribune she met with members of the governor’s staff in February and heard from his office again via phone in April, shortly before she learned that the governor would not ask the Senate to confirm her. In those conversations, she recalled, she was never explicitly directed to change her position in the Hensley case, but she was peppered with questions about upcoming cases and asked whether she had any questions about how to decide her vote.
“I said I wasn’t going to violate my oath by talking about upcoming cases,” Suhl said. She recalled telling them, “I follow the law, and I do what’s right or wrong, and I listen to the facts.”
Suhl shared with the Chronicle secret recordings of her interactions with Abbott’s staff, who could be heard encouraging her to prioritize the governor’s viewpoint.
John Wittman, Abbott’s spokesman, said only that “all appointment decisions are made based solely on merit.”
Alvarado did not immediately return messages from the Tribune.
The case against Hensley dragged on for more than two years, an unusually long time for the agency, which is supposed to be independent from political influence.
Suhl said she thinks the governor likely learned about the board’s preliminary deliberation and votes from one of her fellow commissioners. Preliminary votes by the disciplinary board are confidential, including the actual vote tally, as are the identities of the commissioners who voted each way.
“I believe one of the commissioners violated the oath of office and told the governor,” she told the Tribune. “There was some type of breach.”
Suhl and Alvarado took a preliminary, unofficial vote to sanction Hensley in late 2018, they told the Chronicle. But in its final vote in October 2019 — without Suhl and Alvarado — the board handed down just a warning.
The commission, which meets several times a year, is composed of five gubernatorial appointees, six judges appointed by members of the Texas Supreme Court and two lawyers appointed by the State Bar of Texas.
Years ago, after declining to hear a case on spousal benefits for same-sex couples, the Texas Supreme Court reversed course amid pressure from GOP leaders, including Abbott. The court ultimately threw out a lower court ruling that had extended spousal benefits to same-sex couples.
Democrats condemned the governor.
“Appointees swear an oath to serve the people of Texas, not any politician or political party,” said Manny Garcia, executive director of the Texas Democratic Party. “From Donald Trump to Greg Abbott to Dennis Bonnen, Republicans are deploying Trump-style mafia politics and the consequences are dire.”
Abbott is trying to condone his non-lawyer #Judge Oakley comments and play down the racism and sexism that’s rife in his State of #TEXAS governmental departments. If the CEO of a Fortune 100 said that, he’d be sacked. #ResignAbbott should be the #hashtag https://t.co/rgwLaRWCZC pic.twitter.com/AxaO7Acil8
— LawsInTexas (@lawsintexasusa) December 15, 2019
This sanction was never published in the State Bar of Texas Journal. The Order was in May 2018. A Correction and publication is requested. #WeThePeople #TEXAS #txlege #judge #ethics #SayNoToRacism #RESTORETX #AuditTexas #lawtwitter https://t.co/vfudXFr6wx
— LawsInTexas (@lawsintexasusa) December 6, 2019