AUSTIN, Texas (CBSDFW.COM) – Every ballot this midterm election will have judges to vote on, but knowing who to vote for can be difficult in Texas.
When Texas judges misbehave, the state agency in charge of overseeing judges often keeps their identities a secret.
Complaints against judges are filed with the Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct. The commission has the power to discipline Texas judges, but the CBS 11 I-Team found it rarely does.
Last year, 4 percent of complaints filed resulted in a judge being punished.
The commission meets every other month for two to three days on the fourth floor of a state government building in Austin. Behind closed doors, the 13 appointed non-paid members investigate complaints and decide if a judge should be sanctioned.
In the rare case when the commission does hand down a punishment, more times than not, the judge’s identity is kept confidential.
Since 2016, 61 percent of all sanctions handed down by the commission were kept private.
Here are examples of cases where a judge was given a private sanction:
According to discipline records, in June, commissioners found one judge “exhibited bias and prejudice against women at his workplace.” The judge was issued a private warning.
Another judge took a case involving a family member, then “later released the family member without any bond.” That judge was also given a private reprimand.
Last year, a judge “publicly stated that he was going to call the Governor’s Office to obtain a permit to kill two people with whom he was having a political dispute.” The commission won’t reveal that judge’s name either. It’s confidential.
The commission says the less severe misdeeds are given the private sanctions, but the guidelines the commission uses are admittedly subjective.
The commission’s executive director, Eric Vinson, told the I-Team the reason so much is kept confidential is to protect judges from political attacks that could be used in an election.
However, Karly Jo Dixon with the Texas Fair Defense Project said there needs to be more transparency in the punishments and in the process.
“I think people who have a cause in a courtroom deserve to know who they are standing in front of,” Dixon said. “They are going to be getting into personal situations and that relationship in the courtroom needs to be built on trust. Part of that trust is knowing what has happened to that judge.”
Vinson said the commission’s main objective is to protect the public, not solely to punish judges. He said the commission has found a private sanction usually works in stopping a judge from acting out again.
The commission can suspend judges, but only when a judge has been criminally charged. The commission has no authority to remove a judge from the bench; only the Texas Supreme Court can do that.
A complaint against a judge can be filed on the State’s Commission on Judicial Conduct website.