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Making judicial complaint process easier has merit

December 15, 2018

Recommendations by the Texas Judicial Council to the Texas Legislature for increasing the transparency of the State Commission on Judicial Conduct merit follow-through.

Following passage of an amendment to the Texas Constitution, the commission was created in 1965 as an independent agency to investigate allegations of judicial misconduct or permanent disability and to discipline members of the judiciary if merited.

Much of its work is done behind closed doors. Even when there is disciplinary action, agency rules allow some matters to remain private.

In a recently released report to the Legislature, the Judicial Council recommends the commission be required to report the number of complaints that have been deferred pending criminal investigation and the number of complaints referred to law enforcement.

It is also asking the Legislature to require the commission to include on its website an index of pending cases by case number — including the current status of each case and the date the complaint was lodged.

In addition, the council is seeking legislative action that would make the commission’s website more consumer-friendly by “posting simple directions on its website with instruction about how to file a complaints, map out in clear and concise detail how a complaint makes its way through the process from filing to resolution and clarify that confidentiality regarding a complaint applies to the commission and not the complaint.”

It all sounds simplistic and something that should not require legislation, but if that is the only way it’s going to get done, let’s move forward.

Texas is great at establishing agencies that are supposed to provide checks and balances but often are nothing more than paper tigers. They are limited in power and scope, and their numbers reflect that.

In fiscal 2018, more than 3,700 judges fell under the jurisdiction of the Commission on Judicial Conduct, according to the Office of Court Administration. They include every level of judge, from municipal court to the Texas Supreme Court — both elected and appointed. It even has jurisdiction over judges who aren’t lawyers, such as justices of the peace.

Last year, the commission opened 1,593 cases. Only 79 resulted in any form of action, including public sanction, private sanction or orders of additional education. One of those cases was that of a Bexar County Probate Court judge who was issued a public admonition last spring for conduct on the bench unbecoming a judge. Kelly Cross was also ordered to obtain an hour of instruction with a mentor.

The commission’s investigations in 2018 forced the resignation of five judges who voluntary gave up their seats in lieu of disciplinary action.

Most cases were determined not to violate the Texas Code of Judicial Conduct. Another 1,678 were dismissed after investigation, 21 were dismissed with letters of caution, four were dismissed based on corrective action by the judge, and nine were dismissed after it was determined the cases were moot.

After every election cycle, underqualified members of the legal bar assume judicial roles because of political party sweeps at the polls.

For the most part, Texas judges are well-qualified and do an outstanding job. However, until Texas changes its judicial selection process, criminal defendants and civil litigants will be at the mercy of a small percentage of judges who should have never donned robes.

The State Commission on Judicial Conduct plays a vital role in helping maintain the integrity of the justice system in Texas.

Making the process easier for complainants and shedding more daylight on the process are good first steps.

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