Longtime Harris County judge Michael McSpadden formally rebuked over comments about black defendants
Gabrielle Banks Dec. 2, 2019
The State Commission on Judicial Conduct issued a public warning on Nov. 12 to Michael McSpadden, a Republican who served on the 209th Criminal Court from 1982 through the 2018 election, for “casting public discredit on the judiciary and the administration of justice,” based on a series of comments he made about defendants’ attitudes toward judges and police officers.
A former district judge who served on the Harris County bench for 36 years has received a formal reprimand from a state watchdog commission for comments he made to a Houston Chronicle reporter stating black defendants were getting poor guidance from their parents about how to behave when they’re suspected of crimes.
The commission’s rebuke also cited the former judge’s comments in an editorial he penned for the Chronicle expounding on black defendants’ attitudes toward the justice system.
The State Commission on Judicial Conduct issued a warning on Nov. 12 to Michael McSpadden, a Republican who served on the 209th Criminal Court from 1982 through the 2018 election, for “casting public discredit on the judiciary and the administration of justice,” based on a series of comments he made about defendants’ attitudes toward judges and police officers. The commission announced its decision on Monday.
The Austin-based panel found that McSpadden violated a portion of the Texas Code of Judicial Conduct that instructs judges not to do anything outside of court that casts reasonable doubt on the judge’s ability to act impartially.
The panel also found McSpadden violated the Texas Constitution’s prohibition against “willful and persistent conduct that is clearly inconsistent with the proper performance of his duties or casts public discredit upon the judiciary or administration of justice.”
The warning does not prevent McSpadden from sitting by assignment as a visiting judge, according to Eric Vinson, former executive director of the commission.
McSpadden did not respond to a request for comment . He lost a bid for re-election in 2018 along with the other Republican jurists on the bench at the time.
Several racial justice organizations criticized the longtime judge for his comments. And a lawyer on an appeal of a black death row prisoner asked the jurist to recuse himself from the case because of the comments.
Ashton Woods, president of Black Lives Matter Houston, who called for McSpadden to come under scrutiny for the comments, said the former judge’s statement in chambers and in his editorial called into question his ideology, indicating he could not be fair to black defendants and people of color who came before him due to his preconceived notions of how they may think.
“There’s already an imbalance … and when people put their thumb on the scale like McSpadden did, it increases the disparity,” Woods said. “There may have well been innocent people going through his court and he may have thrown the book at them because he had a bias toward them.”
Woods said he hoped all of McSpadden’s rulings would be reviewed for impartiality.
James Douglas, president of the Houston branch of the NAACP, said he did not think the commission went far enough.
“I think he should be banned from sitting on the bench,” Douglas said. “I don’t think he has the mental temperament or understanding of racial issues…Those views are not the views of a person who is totally impartial on the issue. He indicates he is not impartial when it relates to charges against African American males.”
The inflammatory comments were aired in a February 2018 story about Harris County’s bail policy. McSpadden said he felt most felony defendants were “tainted” and most of them had extensive criminal histories, committed new offenses while out on bond and did not take court dates seriously.
He went on to say, “The young black men — and it’s primarily young black men rather than young black women — charged with felony offenses, they’re not getting good advice from their parents,” he said. “Who do they get advice from? Rag-tag organizations like Black Lives Matter, which tell you, ‘Resist police,” which is the worst thing in the world you could tell a young black man … They teach contempt for the police, for the whole justice system.”
The longtime jurist, now 75, responded to the commission during its inquiry last spring that he had made the comments about black men’s conduct toward judges and police officers. He and added that he considered racial disparities in the justice system “a serious problem” but that people should feel free to have open debate about these issues.
McSpadden declined to appear before the commission after he learned of the charges.
The commission, which is made up of judges, lawyers and citizens, rules on standards of judicial conduct both on and off the bench. The goal of such public reprimands is to set a standard and enforce the public’s trust, said Vinson, the former director of the commission.
“It is absolutely meant to be a reminder for everyone about what the commission views as acceptable behavior from a judge and this is clearly viewed as unacceptable behavior from a judge,” he said.
In response to an investigation by the Houston Chronicle, the commission found in August that McSpadden along with 10 other longtime Harris County judges had issued blanket instructions to deny all personal recognizance bond requests between Nov. 20, 2009 and Feb. 1, 2017.
Judge Michael McSpadden
The judges who were admonished included former longtime Harris County District Judge Michael McSpadden, who retired last year after many years presiding over the 209th District Court. The commission found McSpadden had, like many other longtime judges, issued blanket instructions to deny all personal recognizance or PR bond requests from Nov. 20, 2009 to Feb. 1, 2017. McSpadden had previously written a letter to the Houston Chronicle in March 2018 where he admitted that “it is true I have instructed the magistrates not to grant these bonds in our felony cases to all defendants, never specifying a certain race or gender.”
McSpadden told the Chronicle on Thursday that he stands behind his decision to deny PR bonds even if it violated the law.
“I have great respect for the work of the commission. But I still feel the same way. I, as the elected judge, would like to make the decision on free bonds for accused felons rather than turn those important duties over to the magistrates. And it would take one more day to do this,” he said.