Complaints against Texas judges are piling up – and so are complaints against the agency tasked with handling them

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Harris County judge

For over a decade, the Texas 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.

Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected].

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