in Houston, Texas
Panel disciplining judges shields records, withholds them from commission bound to keep them confidential
Wednesday, Mar 14, 2012, 01:19PM CST
By Steve Miller
Lady Justice

Not just no, but hell, no.

In this week of sunshine, there is one state government body that protects its own even if it means slamming a door in the face of one of its most esteemed colleagues.

The Austin American-Statesman writes that the State Commission on Judicial Conduct refused to turn over a number of records to the Sunset Advisory Commission during a routine review. Nor would it allows reviewers to watch proceedings, which are apparently top secret.

The judicial commission, which is in full hunker-down mode as it posts a notice of the sunset commission’s review on the home page of its site, oversees virtually all of the state’s judges, and cited attorney-client privilege and legislative dictates as it thwarted the sunset committee.  

This despite the fact that state law allows all records under review to remain exempt from disclosure laws, and the state Attorney General has ruled that all works reviewed by Sunset staff are confidential.

In its unusual report on the judicial body, the sunset commission acknowledges that the panel is not subject to the state’s public information or open meetings laws but adds, “This must be balanced against the public’s right to know that the process is working fairly and effectively when judges misuse or abuse the substantial authority they have been granted.”

The judicial commission, composed of six judges, five gubernatorial appointees and two State Bar appointees, has met in public 12 times in the last 10 years.

“[The judicial commission] refused to allow Sunset staffers to attend any of its private meetings. The Commission would not allow Sunset staff to attend its meetings to observe its process and its interactions with judges, complainants, and witnesses,” the report said.

The report goes on: “The Commission, based on its interpretation of confidentiality requirements tied to the oversight of judges, refused to give Sunset staff full access to its meetings and key documents used in its enforcement process. This decision impeded Sunset staff ’s ability to conduct a complete and thorough review, and thus, staff could not reach an overall conclusion regarding the efficiency, effectiveness, or impartiality of the Commission’s oversight of judges.”

In other words, the judicial group refused to cooperate. Who knows what might be found in the name of efficiency?

In the work it could do, the Sunset Advisory Commission found several inefficiencies, many based on the fact that the state Supreme Court, which has jurisdiction, has not updated the judicial commission’s rules for 18 years.

The sunset commission advised that the judicial body be reviewed every six years from now on, rather than every 12 years.

Seana Willing, executive director at the judicial commission since 2003, defended the secrecy. Willing, whose bar record states ethics as a practice area, told the Statesman that her commission offered to provide the Sunset panel randomly selected files about judges - albeit with identifying information obscured. "We copied and redacted dozens of files," she said. "They said, ‘No.' "

In its own self-evaluation released in September, the judicial commission stated that "a judicial office is a public trust. In order to function effectively, the judicial system must be assured of the public’s faith and confidence." But it also noted that "... judges rarely engage in criminal activity and most complaints filed against judges do not involve allegations of criminal conduct."

***
Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or stevemiller@texaswatchdog.org.

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Photo 'the shadow of justice' by flickr user jmtimages, used via a Creative Commons license.

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