in Houston, Texas
Judicial panel may keep records secret, Texas AG says
Tuesday, Dec 11, 2012, 03:28PM CST
By Mark Lisheron
Raiders of the Lost Ark

It is at great personal risk that Texas Watchdog discloses that Attorney General Greg Abbott agrees that Texas law allows the State Commission on Judicial Conduct to operate in utter secrecy.

Imagine our surprise when doing a search that instead of finding a blank page the commission has a website with just enough words on it to prove the agency exists.

Having failed to turn into a pillar of pink granite we can conclude that at least for now it is safe to continue on typing the name State Commission on Judicial Conduct. Just don’t say the name aloud while reading this story.

You see, many of us were under the impression the commission was a public body much like any other, subject to laws governing the disclosure of its operations and to regular review by the state’s Sunset Advisory Commission.

How wrong we all were. The Commission on Judicial Conduct, claiming the law afforded them a blanket confidentiality almost unheard of in state government, refused in March to turn over any documents related to its reviews of judges and the judicial process in Texas.

Commission meetings are off limits to the public. State auditors were denied the documents. Low-level government employees were urged to look away from the secret papers when they were removed from a golden winged ark that had been buried for thousands of years.

(We admit to having gotten carried away with a Raiders of the Lost Ark metaphor here.)

The Sunset Commission threw up its hands at the time, saying a review was impossible, and asked for an opinion of the attorney general.

Understanding judges needed some buffer from political pressure and disgruntled plaintiffs, the commission wrote, the public ought to be able to see for itself whether judicial conduct was adequately scrutinized.

The public, with a little help from the Legislature, made sure that wasn’t going to happen by approving the adding of Section 1-a to Article 5 of the Texas Constitution in 1965.

Under that section all commission proceedings are confidential, Abbott said in an opinion he issued last week. Only an exception signed into law by the Legislature could circumvent the confidentiality protections.

In a wholly unexpected move, Seana Willing, executive director for the commission, declined to discuss Abbott’s ruling with the Austin American-Statesman. Nor were reporters allowed to gaze upon Willing’s face.

We were kidding about that last one. We think.

***
Contact Mark Lisheron at 512-299-2318 or mark@texaswatchdog.org or on Twitter at @marktxwatchdog.

Keep up with all the latest news from Texas Watchdog. Fan our page on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and Scribd, and fan us on YouTube. Join our network on de.licio.us, and put our RSS feeds in your newsreader. We're also on MySpace, Digg, FriendFeed, and tumblr.

Photo from 'Raiders of the Lost Ark,' the 1981 action-adventure film starring Harrison Ford.

Secrecy of Texas’ panel policing judges examined
Thursday, Aug 23, 2012, 04:21PM CST
By Steve Miller
gavel

David Swingle’s complaint about a judge last year was one of 1,119 filed with the State Commission on Judicial Conduct. His case is outlined in the 6 pages he submitted to the commission, pages that will be most likely end up reviewed by the body’s 13-member board.

Those pages are not public as the commission is governed by judicial law with its own constitutional provisions. Even if the judge in question is sanctioned, as 3 percent of those accused of wrongdoing were last year, chances are that the meeting at which the merits of the case are discussed will be closed to the public.

In many cases, the name of the judge is withheld even when some culpability is found. Those cases are released by naming the offense but not the offender.

KERA in Dallas today offers its second part in a series on the commission, which came to the attention of state lawmakers when it refused to cooperate with a review by the state’s Sunset Advisory Commission earlier this year.

While most other states hold disciplinary meetings that are closed to the public, the idea that the sunset commission – charged with determining the efficacy of state government operations – would be denied access to meetings and records set off some alarms.

The sunset commission issued a caustic review of the situation, which led to a contentious meeting at the statehouse, which then led to a letter from the commission to the state Attorney General’s office, asking for a ruling that might allow the commission to review the records it seeks.

In the KERA series – first part here - Seana Willing, who is paid $110,000 a year as executive director of the judicial conduct commission, said that proceedings are cloaked because of the high number of “frivolous complaints.”

“Frankly, from my experience if we open this process up and let the public see what’s been filed against the judges they would come to the same realization and recognition I have, and that is we get a lot of frivolous complaints. And there are a lot of really good, honest, hard-working judges in this state. And the ones that aren’t, when they come to our attention, they’re taken care of.”

States have varying procedures for fielding judicial complaints, which are outlined here at the site of the American Judicature Society.

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

Keep up with all the latest news from Texas Watchdog. Fan our page on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and Scribd, and fan us on YouTube. Join our network on de.licio.us, and put our RSS feeds in your newsreader. We're also on MySpace, Digg, FriendFeed, and tumblr.

Photo of gavel by flickr user s_falkow, used via a Creative Commons license.

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.

Keep up with all the latest news from Texas Watchdog. Fan our page on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and Scribd, and fan us on YouTube. Join our network on de.licio.us, and put our RSS feeds in your newsreader. We're also on MySpace, Digg, FriendFeed, and tumblr.

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

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