Bell County justice of the peace sanctioned, criticized

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The Bell County Courthouse (Photo: Renelibrary, CC-BY-SA 4.0)
JP Claudia Lee Brown
JP Claudia Lee Brown

The judicial officer who made national headlines when she set a $4 billion bond for a defendant has been sanctioned by the state.

The public reprimand of Claudia Lee Brown, a justice of the peace in Bell County, falls far short of complaints from two local attorneys asking that she be removed from office.

The State Commission on Judicial Conduct, the body charged with disciplining judges, decided that Brown violated the state code of judicial conduct in setting the bail, which she admitted doing as a protest. Shortly after she set the bail, a state district judge stepped in and amended the bail to $150,000 for the murder suspect, saying the exorbitant amount was unconstitutional.

“Of course it was unconstitutional,” Brown said in an interview with a local news agency shortly after the bail was lowered. “I don’t care what happens to me as long as everyone who comes through this system gets a fair shot at getting out of jail until they prove they are proven guilty or innocent… I would never have done that under normal circumstances, but I did it for a specific reason and I absolutely made my point.”

The complaints against Brown also included her decision to handle the arraignment of her son on a drunk driving charge, including the setting of his $2,000 bail.

Her penance is a public statement from the judicial agency outlining her malfeasance and two hours of instruction on how to conduct her office.

Brown “failed to comply with the law and maintain competence in the law, failed to be patient, dignified and courteous with and through words and conduct indicated she was swayed by partisan interests…” the ruling stated.

Two attorneys who filed complaints against Brown, Jeff Parker and Brett Pritchard, did not respond to emails or calls requesting an interview.

In his complaint, Pritchard asked the court that Brown be removed from office.

“She has admitted that she shouldn’t have said those things,” Brown’s lawyer, Buck Wood, said in an interview with The Texas Monitor. “It was said out of anger and she knows she should not have set that enormous bond. And it was poor judgment in the arraignment of her son.”

Wood, a veteran defender of public officials, noted that the State Commission on Judicial Conduct has a wide range of conduct rules and the arraignment fell under that broad spectrum.

The judicial conduct office itself has for years been immersed in controversy, primarily battling with state lawmakers over transparency issues.

In 2000, a report from the Sunset Advisory Commission asked that the SCJC be more open about its activities and make the complaint process more open to the public.

In 2013, the SCJC refused to cooperate with the Sunset Advisory Commission during an evaluation. The SCJC claimed it was constitutionally prevented from providing access to documents and meetings in many cases.

“You hide behind the constitution,” Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, said, according to a news report at the time. “If we did that, we’d never get anything done in the Legislature.”

During the 2013 session, a measure requiring some compliance with the Sunset Commission was passed.

Legislation passed in 2015 required more information be divulged by the SCJC in its annual report.

During session this year, a bill was filed to require the SCJC to provide more detailed information on resolved complaints, as well as complaints that have been pending for more than a year. The measure stalled as the regular session ended.

Brown’s was the fifth public sanction handed out by the SCJC this fiscal year, which started September 1, after the body handed out six public sanctions in fiscal year 2017.

Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected].

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