The Dallas Morning News
Judicial Ethics Panel Overwhelmed
To deal with misbehaving judges, commission needs boost from Legislature
Afamily court judge ordered two attorneys in her courtroom shackled to the jury box after they annoyed her. A district court judge danced in the courtroom to a vulgar song, then allowed the performance to be posted on social media.
A justice of the peace issued arrest warrants for President Joe Biden and Dr. Anthony Fauci in opposition to COVID-19 and other policies.
Sadly, the list of Texas judges who behaved badly last year goes on and on. After the State Commission on Judicial Conduct disposed of a record number of 2,229 complaints, 86 judges were sanctioned, suspended or voluntarily agreed to resign, according to the agency’s 2022 annual report. Complaints against two judges were referred to law enforcement.
Texas should consider lending more support to this important state panel, preferably through administrative fees or fines. The commission says it’s understaffed and under-budgeted at a time when not only complaints are spiking, but also its responsibilities have been expanded.
Legislative mandates for faster resolution of cases took effect in 2022, as did a new rule that gave the agency authority to handle complaints against judicial candidates, instead of just officeholders.
Most of the judges disciplined last year were cited for failing to comply with the law, incompetence, having an improper demeanor and for behaving in a way that “cast public discredit on the judiciary.”
Texas voters too often choose these downballot public officials based on political party, not whether they’re actually qualified to be judges. That’s why the commission’s job of investigating complaints is an important backstop for the cause of justice.
Last year, the 13-member board and 14person staff streamlined their investigation process and cleared more cases than ever before. But that “high level of productivity is not likely to be sustainable given current staffing levels,” commission Chairman David Schenck warned in the report.
That’s why the commission is asking the Legislature to beef up its $1.2 million annual budget, which comes from the state’s general revenue fund, by at least $275,000 to cover increased staffing and software costs.
Disturbingly, $75,000 of that is needed to pay outside attorneys to defend the commission against two lawsuits because Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has shamefully refused to do so, neglecting his office’s duty.
We prefer when state agencies get some funding through the payment of fees or fines, rather than relying wholly on tax dollars.
But the commission does need additional funds. Texas judges make important decisions every day in their courtrooms for tens of thousands of litigants, crime victims and defendants. The agency ensuring that those judges act ethically should have what it needs to fulfill its mission and protect public trust.