The state agency tasked with investigating allegations of misconduct by members of the judiciary should not be undermined by high stakes political games.
The Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct needs to operate with political independence. It must be allowed to do its job without having its governor-appointed members and staff worrying about the fallout from investigations and findings.
There has been much turmoil at this state agency over the last year, but things may finally be settling down. The commission had been without a permanent director since the fall. Late last week, Jacqueline Habersham, who has been working for the commission for 19 years and been serving as the interim director, was officially named as the head of the agency.
It has been troubling to see politics taking center stage at the Commission on Judicial Conduct. It has hampered the agency’s work and fueled staff turnover. For the agency to get back on track, Habersham needs the latitude necessary to carry out the duties of her job without fear of retribution for stepping on political toes.
Problems at the agency began about a year ago in connection with the commission’s findings in the case of McLennan County Pct. 1 Place 1 Justice of the Peace Dianne Hensley’s. The commission sanctioned the Waco justice of the peace for conducting heterosexual marriage ceremonies, but refusing to do same-sex weddings due to her Christian religious beliefs. The commission was right to do this. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled same-sex marriage is legal.
That action led to political influence. Two commissioners who were awaiting Senate confirmation of their appointments were called in to multiple meetings with Gov. Greg Abbott’s staff. Their names were withdrawn from the confirmation list.
One of the appointees, Amy Suhl, blamed the withdrawal of her name from the confirmation list on the commission’s findings in the Hensley case. She also told Texas Lawyer she and fellow appointee Maricela Alvarado heard their names were withdrawn because Abbott wanted appointees to serve the governor, not themselves.
The loss of the two commissioners was not the only fallout. The agency’s director, Eric Vinson, resigned in August after an informal proceeding in the Hensley case. His exit was followed by the resignation of Commission Chairwoman Catherine Wylie.
In an unusual legal move, Hensley chose not to appeal the commission’s ruling through normal channels. Instead she filed a lawsuit against the commission in state court alleging the agency and staff are violating her religious freedom under Texas law. But the drama in this case does not end there. The Texas Attorney General’s Office has declined to defend the commission in court, and the agency has had to take steps to hire outside legal counsel.
Authorized by voters in 1965 through a constitutional amendment, the Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct investigates allegations of misconduct or disability made against Texas judges. In recent years, with the political sweeps bringing a fresh crop of judges to the bench each election cycle, the commission’s role has become even more important.
In 2019, the annual investigation caseload for the commission was up 79 percent over fiscal 2015 according to the agency’s most recent annual report. We are aware of at least two Bexar County judges who have had complaints filed against them in the last year.
This agency needs to be allowed to do its work unhampered from political influence. The integrity of the Texas judicial system rides on it.
Published at Fri, 28 Feb 2020 14:37:00 +0000