in Houston, Texas
Is reform talk just talk? Panel considers transparency recommendations for Texas Ethics Commission, Commission on Judicial Conduct
Wednesday, Apr 11, 2012, 02:55PM CST
By Mark Lisheron

A reminder to all those encouraged by the lofty talk of reform during the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission hearing Tuesday: the sun always shines brighter when the Legislature isn’t in session.

The Advisory Commission lent a favorable ear to requests for less secrecy in two good government agencies, the Commission on Judicial Conduct and the Ethics Commission, the Austin American-Statesman is reporting.

As Texas Watchdog reported Monday, the Advisory Commission issued its recommendations to the Legislature for changes in the operation of the Ethics Commission. The Commission also released its report on the Judicial Conduct Commission.

And as we reported Monday, the Advisory Commission stopped short of asking the Legislature to endow the Ethics Commission with investigative powers, disappointing advocates who told Texas Watchdog that without them the commission is toothless.

Those reformers repeated those pleas Tuesday at the Capitol to a 12-member Advisory Commission of five senators, five representatives and two public members. The commission preferred to focus on its recommendations that the Ethics Commission give priority to more serious ethics violations and be given the technology to keep better track of complaints.

The Legislature has been unwilling to get more serious about ethics laws, its critics contend, because those laws apply to members of the august body.

Moreover, the Sunset Advisory Commission, which has in the past itself been accused of having been co-opted politically, can only make recommendations. And although the commission can recommend that an agency be disbanded, Ethics is protected from such authority by the state Constitution.

So are the provisions allowing the Commission on Judicial Conduct to keep their records of investigations into the actions of judges confidential. Sunset is asking the Legislature to take steps to change the Constitution to give the commission the authority to review those cases without making them public.

Commission members Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, and Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, made a show of support for the changes, Whitmire at one point accusing the Judicial Conduct Commission of hiding behind the Constitution, according to the Dallas Morning News.

Both Whitmire and Cook, longtime legislators, are aware that they are the key to any change in the Constitution, which requires a joint resolution, passed by a two-thirds majority in each house of the Legislature and then by a majority in a statewide referendum.

Not to forecast a long spate of cloudy days come January of 2013 or anything.

Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or or on Twitter at @marktxwatchdog.

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Photo of Texas state Capitol by flickr user DaveWilsonPhotography, used via a Creative Commons license.

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