Complaints against Texas judges are piling up – and so are complaints against the agency tasked with handling them
Originally Published: 4 October, 2019 ; update by LIT; 22 Dec., 2019
For over a decade, the Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct has refused to cooperate with the state in a routine process for assessing the effectiveness of state agencies.
Lawmakers passed a bill earlier this year requiring the agency to be more transparent, but Gov. Greg Abbott vetoed the measure, insisting that the commission could choose to be more transparent if it wanted to be.
The agency was created in the 1960s to enforce rules against judicial misconduct.
Now the backlog of complaints about the conduct of Texas judges is exploding, driven in part by a population boom, which has led to the creation of new courts and election of new, inexperienced judges to fill those benches.
Some individuals say those complaints are falling into a bureaucratic dead zone.
Records show that the number of pending cases jumped almost 75 percent between 2016 and 2018, from 477 to 827.
“A year ago, we filed a complaint on a judge, and if we hadn’t taken a screenshot of that complaint when we filed it, there would have been no way to know that it had ever been filed,”
Emily Gerrick, a staff attorney for the Texas Fair Defense Project, told the House Committee on Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence during a March hearing on the bill.
The bill would have required the agency to update complainants on the status of their complaints at least once a quarter. It also would have required the agency to report annually on the number of unresolved complaints more than a year old.
“The caseload has grown to 300 cases a meeting, I am told,” said El Paso lawyer Steve Fischer, referring to the number of complaints that the commission is expected to rule on.
Fischer is a new appointee to the 13-member commission, one of two members appointed by the state bar association. Six other members are appointed by the state Supreme Court and five by the governor.
Fischer, who will attend his first board meeting in December, said he’s already hearing from lawyers eager to air their gripes about judges.
“I have started these Facebook pages, lawyers only, and we have 20,000 lawyers in the groups, which is a fifth of all the attorneys in the state,” Fischer said.
Among the messages he sees, he said, are beefs about judges.
“I could not believe this avalanche of messages,” he said.
Fischer said that opening up the process would help the public understand it better and would benefit the accused in cases of spurious complaints.
“The commission should not be a private meeting and many of the complaints should be fully public,” he said. The governor’s veto, Fischer added, has not helped in gaining the public’s faith that its judges are acting appropriately.
The commission is not subject to the state’s open meetings and public records laws. Its website does not provide meeting dates.
The vetoed bill had been a victory of sorts for Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, who has for years crusaded for more transparency by the commission.
A similar bill in 2017 failed to get out of committee, but a successful 2015 measure required the commission to report the types of misconduct that resulted in penalties.
In an email, Zaffirini said the vetoed bill was “a first step to implement simple changes that would increase transparency and SCJC’s responsiveness to complainants and judges. SCJC could implement the provisions in this bill independently, but they have consistently declined to do so, much to my dismay.”
The measure had merit, said Bob Bennett, a Houston attorney who represents attorneys and judges who face complaints.
“The system is not working as it should,” Bennett said. He has no gripes with the length of time to complete a case. But the lack of responsiveness of the commission is troubling, he said.
“I’ve filed a complaint about a judge and never heard anything,” Bennett said. “It’s a blank wall; it’s nonresponsive. So anything that would make this commission more accountable and transparent is a positive.”
Jacqueline Habersham, interim executive director of the commission, did not respond to an interview request.
The veto, Bennett said, “is strange, given the support for that bill.” Abbott did not respond to an email seeking comment.
Go here for a list of Gov. Abbott’s vetoes this year.
Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence
The committee shall have nine members, with jurisdiction over all matters pertaining to:
(1) fines and penalties arising under civil laws;
(2) civil law, including rights, duties, remedies, and procedures
thereunder, and including probate and guardianship matters;
(3) civil procedure in the courts of Texas;
(4) administrative law and the adjudication of rights by administrative
(5) permission to sue the state;
(6) uniform state laws;
(7) creating, changing, or otherwise affecting courts of judicial
districts of the state;
(8) establishing districts for the election of judicial officers;
(9) courts and court procedures except where jurisdiction is
specifically granted to some other standing committee; and
(10) the following state agencies: the Supreme Court, the courts of
appeals, the Court of Criminal Appeals, the State Commission on Judicial
Conduct, the Office of Court Administration of the Texas Judicial System, the
State Law Library, the Texas Judicial Council, the Judicial Branch Certification
Commission, the Office of the Attorney General, the Board of Law Examiners,
the State Bar of Texas, and the State Office of Administrative Hearings.
AUTHOR’S / SPONSOR’S STATEMENT OF INTENT
The State Commission on Judicial Conduct (SCJC) closely protects the confidentiality of complaints. This not only makes the extent of fairness and efficiency in SCJC’s disciplinary process difficult to determine by the public, but also causes frustration for the complainants participating in this process.
What’s more, currently the main instrument for the legislature to examine the extent of fairness and efficiency in SCJC’s disciplinary process is through the Sunset review process, which happens only once every decade.
A result of Texas Judicial Council recommendations, S.B. 467 would require SCJC to include in its annual report to the legislature the number of complaints on which SCJC has not issued a decision for more than a year since filing, as well as those referred to law enforcement and deferred pending a criminal investigation;
-notify a complainant of a change in a complaint’s status within the investigative process unless notice would jeopardize an undercover investigation;
-provide online access to an index of pending complaint investigations, searchable by complaint number, that includes the date the complaint is received by SCJC and the status of the investigation or review;
-publish the guidelines it uses to ensure that a sanction is proportional to the misconduct;
-and promulgate deadlines by which SCJC has to take action on a complaint, with exceptions for extenuating circumstances.
These changes would enhance SCJC’s transparency, efficiency, and consistency and increase not only the public’s, but also the judiciary’s trust in SCJC’s work and determinations.
(Original Author’s/Sponsor’s Statement of Intent) S.B. 467 amends current law relating to the procedures of the State Commission on Judicial Conduct.