Sanction: Texas Judge Interfered in Cases to Help His Ex-Court Coordinator, Who’s Now District Clerk
“He was inappropriately interfering in the judicial function of my office and my court, and I told him as much,” said retired Wood County Judge Bryan Jeanes, who filed a judicial complaint against 402nd District Judge Jeffrey Fletcher of Wood County. “He was crossing a barrier by trying to handle cases to benefit his court administrator.”
Judge Jeffrey Fletcher, 402nd District. Texas.
Judges are not supposed to use their power to advance personal interests.
But that’s what 402nd District Judge Jeffrey Fletcher of Wood County did, according to the Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct, which issued a private warning saying the judge “lent the prestige of his judicial office to advance the private interests of his court administrator and her family.”
Fletcher interfered in a probate matter, trying to get a hearing expedited, because the delay was negatively impacting a relative of his then-court coordinator Donna Huston, according to former Wood County Judge Bryan Jeanes, who filed the complaint behind Fletcher’s sanction. He also interfered in a DWI case against Huston’s sister, trying to get it transferred into his court, so he could “chew her ass out” and give her no special treatment, according to the complaint.
When asked to comment about the private warning, Fletcher hung up on Texas Lawyer and didn’t return subsequent calls or an email seeking comment.
His former court administrator, Huston, has since risen to public office, having been elected Wood County district clerk in 2018. She declined to comment.
The Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct issued the private warning to Fletcher last summer, but the facts are just coming to light because of the downfall of another public official, Wood County Criminal District Attorney Jim Wheeler.
Wheeler resigned as district attorney in October 2018 to avoid being prosecuted for Class A misdemeanor official oppression for allegedly sexually harassing his first assistant district attorney, Angela Albers, according to disclosures uncovered through a Texas Public Information Act request.
But the investigation report that led to his resignation also showed that Wheeler had raised his own concerns about Fletcher. It showed Wheeler had talked with the Texas Department of Public Safety’s Texas Ranger Division about the judge’s alleged improper interference in a DWI case that Albers was prosecuting within another judge’s court.
Wheeler had also spoken to the former judge, Jeanes, in November 2017 about “a possible Whistleblower Act violation and possibly even an official oppression question,” the complaint said, involving “improper communication between the district judge and one of his prosecutors.”
That prosecutor, Albers, is the same one who accused Wheeler of sexual misconduct. But at the time, Wheeler allegedly told Jeanes he thought Albers was experiencing a hostile work environment because of her conversations with Fletcher and Huston, said the complaint.
Wheeler’s office recused itself from the DWI case, and Jeanes appointed an attorney pro tem.
Albers told Texas Lawyer it was Wheeler’s decision to recuse the office, and declined to comment about the conversations with Fletcher and Huston that had allegedly created the hostile work environment.
Jeanes’ judicial conduct complaint shows Wheeler wasn’t the only local official allegedly concerned about Fletcher’s judicial conduct and that the DWI wasn’t the only case in which the judge allegedly meddled.
“He was inappropriately interfering in the judicial function of my office and my court, and I told him as much,” said Jeanes, who served 12 years as the county’s nonlawyer constitutional county court judge before retiring in 2018. “He was crossing a barrier by trying to handle cases to benefit his court administrator.”
Jeanes’ complaint, which the retired judge emailed to Texas Lawyer, claimed Fletcher’s first interference in Jeanes’ court was in a probate matter in the fall of 2017.
“Fletcher came to my office and requested that this same hearing be expedited, if at all possible, because his Court Administrator Donna Huston was concerned about a relative of hers being negatively affected by the hearing delay,” the complaint said.
Huston called Jeanes’ court coordinator asking for a quicker hearing, and later, Fletcher approached the coordinator in a parking lot, asking her to email Jeanes’ court orders, according to the complaint.
Also, an attorney in the probate matter was “being pressured from above to rush this thing,” according to Jeanes’ complaint.
“I didn’t think that was appropriate,” said Jeanes, who has since moved to Collin County to be closer to his grandchildren. “He shouldn’t have been involved at all.”
The second case in which Fletcher allegedly interfered was the DWI case, where Huston’s sister was the defendant.
Jeanes’ complaint claimed his office got a motion and order on Oct. 18, 2017, to transfer the case to Fletcher’s court. It was stamped with the signature of Angela Albers, then-assistant district attorney.
Jeanes said he became suspicious and denied the transfer.
“This motion and order submission seemed out of the ordinary,’” his complaint said.
Typically, Jeanes would transfer misdemeanor cases to Fletcher’s court only if there was a felony charge against the same defendant. In this case, there was no felony and therefore no need for a transfer.
Also, Albers usually signed court documents by hand in blue ink, instead of using a stamp, like the one that appeared on the documents sent to Jeanes, according to the complaint.
In his judicial complaint, Jeanes said Albers told him she hadn’t stamped her name on the transfer motion, and that she didn’t know who had done so.
In an interview with Texas Lawyer, Albers confirmed Fletcher had initiated the transfer request but said she does not believe the judge fraudulently stamped her signature on the motion.
“It was probably one of these girls in the office,” Albers said. “That was not done with an ill intent.”
Jeanes’ complaint said Fletcher later visited Jeanes’ office to ask why Jeanes had denied the transfer. Jeanes said he expressed concern about the source and validity of the transfer motion.
“Judge Fletcher responded that he had instigated the transfer request,” according to the complaint. “He explained that he had heard that the defendant was ‘running all over the county saying that she wasn’t worried and that she had this in the bag,’ and he had wanted the case transferred so that he could ‘chew her ass out’ and show her that she would receive no special treatment,” said the complaint.
According to the complaint, Jeanes told Fletcher the DWI defendant wouldn’t get special treatment. Jeanes added that he asked who had done the defendant’s magistration, and Fletcher had said he didn’t know.
“I later learned that Judge Fletcher had magistrated this charge,” said the complaint narrative. Jeanes said he also later learned that the defendant was Huston’s sister.
The district attorney at the time, Wheeler, allegedly planned to file a judicial complaint against Flectcher, according to Jeanes.
Jeanes said he told Wheeler at a November 2017 meeting that he was preparing a report about Fletcher, and that he was willing, after he’d finished his own complaint, to sign off on a joint complaint with Wheeler.
“I did file my complaint,” Jeanes said in an interview. “I was not aware he ever filed any complaint.”
Wheeler declined to comment and hung up on Texas Lawyer before hearing questions about the Fletcher complaint.
His attorney and father, James Paul Wheeler, told Texas Lawyer that he didn’t have a copy of any complaint against Fletcher and didn’t know whether the judge faced discipline.
“My understanding is that overall, [Jim Wheeler] was very supportive of Judge Fletcher, and remains so,” James Wheeler said.
The judicial conduct commission sent Jeanes a letter that said the commission considered his complaint against Fletcher at a regularly scheduled meeting.
Jeanes emailed the letter to Texas Lawyer.
“After a thorough review and investigation of the issues you raised in your complaint, the commission voted to issue the judge a private sanction,” said the July 6, 2018, letter.
“It’s obviously in response to my filing the complaint,” Jeanes said.
The private warning said, “The judge lent the prestige of his judicial office to advance the private interests of his court administrator and her family, failed to comply with the law and maintain professional competence in the law, improperly failed to recuse himself, and engaged in improper ex parte communications.”
The warning also said the judge repeatedly tried to expedite a hearing in a probate matter in another court by talking with the court and its staff.
According to the warning, the judge did the magistration of his court administrator’s half-sister in a criminal case. The judge pressured a prosecutor to transfer that criminal case to his court, communicated to the prosecutor his dissatisfaction with the terms of a plea agreement, and “directed her to impose certain conditions on the sentence,” said the warning, which found the judge violated five judicial conduct rules, and ordered additional education.
“I personally would have wanted it to be a public admonishment, rather than a private one,” Jeanes said. “But I understand when you get in the arena of a district judge, they are not as quick to call them on the carpet.”
Texas Judge’s Hot Temper, Stern Tongue Revealed in Court Records
“I think [402nd District Judge Jeffrey Fletcher] had every opportunity to be a good judge, and I would say he probably still has that opportunity,” former Wood County Judge Bryan Jeanes said. “In my opinion, he’s made some bad decisions and overstepped his bounds in some areas.”
A review of court documents in cases before 402nd District Judge Jeffrey Fletcher paints a picture of a jurist with a sharp tongue and history of referring to attorneys and litigants as liars.
Fletcher has been on the hot seat in the past, facing judicial discipline for interfering with another judge’s cases to benefit his former court administrator, who is now a district clerk.
But now, the judge might also end up in the spotlight for other behavior, uncovered through a Texas Lawyer investigation of appellate opinions and court records, which show Fletcher sending angry emails to attorneys and others, and accusing lawyers and litigants of lying.
“Your failure to properly manage your cases and calendar, coupled with lying to my staff requires me to comply with the responsibilities required of me as a district judge,” Fletcher wrote in an email about a missed court date by Tyler attorney O.W. “Buddy” Loyd II. “Your failure to appear as ordered, and dishonesty towards my staff reflects your utter disregard for your duties as a lawyer, you lack of candor with my staff and your conduct unbecoming the profession.”
Fletcher didn’t respond to a call or email seeking comment.
But questions are swirling about whether he violated judicial conduct rules that require judges to be courteous to lawyers and parties appearing before them, and to avoid any appearance of impropriety or bias.
Those who’ve raised questions include former Wood County Judge Bryan Jeanes, who filed a judicial conduct complaint over a probate case and DWI case that led to the prior private warning against Fletcher.
“I think he had every opportunity to be a good judge, and I would say he probably still has that opportunity,” Jeanes said. “In my opinion, he’s made some bad decisions and overstepped his bounds in some areas.”
In rural Wood County’s tight-knit legal community, lawyers have heard stories of Fletcher’s demeanor, and some have read the appellate cases detailing his comments. But that doesn’t mean all attorneys are unhappy with the judge.
Curtis Alexander McCampbell partner Brad McCampbell of Emory, for instance, ran against Fletcher in the 2016 Republican Primary and lost. He said he hasn’t noticed the judge being discourteous to lawyers or litigants, although Fletcher can be stern, like a lot of judges.
“All of my experiences with the judge since then in cases where he’s on the bench have been good,” McCampbell said, noting he handles civil litigation, which isn’t as hotly contested as family law or criminal cases.
One example of Fletcher possibly overstepping bounds arose in a recent contempt of court proceeding, in which another judge determined that Fletcher made unfounded accusations that an attorney lied about missing a court setting.
When Loyd, the Tyler attorney, missed the case setting in March, Fletcher responded with an email. He admitted in the subsequent contempt-of-court proceeding that he was angry when he wrote the email, which Texas Lawyer obtained from court records.
The email said that Fletcher’s court coordinator had called Loyd on March 8, after he didn’t appear. It then added an accusation: that Loyd had “lied,” saying someone in the office told him he didn’t have to appear, when he hadn’t talked to anyone on Fletcher’s staff, the email said.
“This conduct is both extremely unprofessional and dishonest and will not be tolerated,” Fletcher wrote, citing a disciplinary rule that prohibits attorneys from engaging in dishonest, fraudulent, deceitful or misrepresentative conduct.
Fletcher then fined Loyd $500.
Loyd didn’t pay the $500, and a contempt-of-court proceeding followed. Hopkins County Court-at-Law Judge Amy Smith, the visiting judge who presided, did find Loyd in civil contempt for missing court dates, but also found that Fletcher’s accusations that Loyd lied were unfounded.
Loyd is appealing the ruling.
“Judge Fletcher testified that he was angry at OW Loyd, II when he wrote the email,” Smith’s findings and conclusions said. “As to the contempt issue that Mr. Loyd lied to the court, was dishonest and unprofessional, the court found this complaint to be unfounded. Mr. Loyd was never given the opportunity to apologize, explain or make amends to the court before Judge Fletcher emailed him with these accusations.”
Loyd declined to comment.
His attorney, Boren & Mims partner Bobby Mims of Tyler, said Loyd was in an auto collision a year and a half ago, and suffered a head injury that impacted his cognition, which may explain why he missed court.
“In the email, he called Buddy a liar. Buddy is a very well-thought-of lawyer here, so we contested that. I felt the judge was very rude to the other lawyers. He was imperious, almost,” Mims said.
Another email from Fletcher, which found its way to Tyler’s 12th Court of Appeals, accused a family law litigant, Theresa Lynn Goddard, of “weaponizing” a protective order to have her then-husband incarcerated.
In re Goddard
- The appellant in a divorce case had a temporary ex parte protective order against her then-husband.
- The parties entered a Rule 11 agreement to extend the protective order until the court heard evidence.
- Fletcher issued a sua sponte order to vacate the extension of the protective order.
- The appellant sought mandamus relief from Tyler’s 12th Court of Appeals.
- The court ordered Fletcher to restore the protective order, finding he should have provided a hearing and considered the couple’s child’s best interests.
The judge wrote in an email that he received numerous questions from law enforcement about the protective order and that law enforcement had been “forced to endure numerous illicit telephone calls and complaints,” the email said.
“It has become glaringly apparent that the feckless temporary ex parte protective order has been weaponized by Ms. Goddard in her effort to have Mr. Goddard incarcerated,” Fletcher wrote. “Further abuse of the rules and weaponization of the law pertaining to the application for protective orders without valid evidence properly presented will result in very uncomfortable consequences.”
Goddard’s petition for writ of mandamus said that Fletcher’s email referenced questions from law enforcement, but she couldn’t cross-examine them at a hearing. Goddard claimed that judges shouldn’t have that type of ex parte communications. Most disturbing, claimed Goddard, were the weaponization accusations and threat of consequences. The petition called it “judicial bullying.”
Quitman solo practitioner Brandon Baade, Goddard’s appellate attorney, declined to comment.
‘The Most Bizarre Thing’
In addition to Loyd, Fletcher has allegedly accused others—including former Quitman Police Captain Terry Bevill—of lying.
In Bevill’s case, Fletcher allegedly made the accusation in open court and on the record during the trial of David McGee, a jailer accused of tampering with government records and facilitating or permitting an inmate escape.
Bevill has since sued Fletcher and other local officials, accusing them of retaliation because he filed an affidavit on McGee’s behalf, saying close relationships between the officials would harm McGee’s right to a fair trial. The officials deny this.
McGee’s trial proceeded in Fletcher’s court. At the end, Fletcher allegedly commented that Bevill’s affidavit contained lies that were reprehensible and disrespectful of law enforcement and officers of the court. Fletcher issued a warrant for Bevill’s arrest for felony aggravated perjury, but later, a grand jury declined to indict Bevill and dismissed the charge.
“It was the most bizarre thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” said Greenville solo practitioner Scott Cornuaud, the criminal-defense lawyer in the McGee trial, who quit taking Wood County cases because of it. “I didn’t know judges could do that: Just arbitrarily say, ‘I don’t think he’s telling the truth.’ … I’ve scratched my head ever since, wondering what kind of county that can happen in.”
Wood County Criminal District Attorney Angela Albers declined to comment.
“The integrity of the justice system is compromised when a judge acts as a complaining witness, prosecutor and jury—not as a fair and impartial jurist,” said Bevill’s civil attorney, Laura Benitez Geisler, partner in Sommerman, McCaffity, Quesada & Geisler in Dallas.
In re K.M.
- A father accused a mother of exposing their child to marijuana; the mother countered with child sex abuse allegations.
- Fletcher questioned the mother’s evidence and why she delayed the accusation.
- Fletcher limited the mother’s visitation to be in front of a licensed therapist.
- The mother argued that Fletcher ruled out of anger and didn’t have evidence for the ruling.
- The 12th Court found a lack of sufficient evidence and ruled that Fletcher abused his discretion.
Geisler said she believes Fletcher violated judicial ethics rules that require judges to avoid impropriety and bias.
Accusations of lying also came up in a child custody proceeding where the mother made potentially unfounded child sexual abuse allegations against the father. The 12th Court’s opinion in In Re K.M. said Fletcher told the mother she should reconsider her affidavit, or have really good proof of her allegations.
“She lies like nobody’s business about lots of things,” Fletcher said about the mother, according to the 12th Court opinion. “I’m telling you, I’m this far from putting her in jail.”
Tyler solo practitioner James Volberding, the appellate attorney for the father, said that Fletcher’s comments didn’t cross a line. Parents in custody disputes sometimes seek to harm each other, and child abuse allegations are the most dangerous.
He said, “Having someone, maybe for the first time, look them in the eye and say, ‘You have lied to this court and to these attorneys,’ if that is true—that is actually healthy.”