The lawyers say in court records they can’t get fair trials before state District Judge Amber Givens, who is under investigation by the state’s Department of Public Safety.
Fifteen criminal defense lawyers are taking the rare step to get an embattled Dallas judge recused from their cases — 104 in total.
The lawyers say in court records they can’t get fair trials before state District Judge Amber Givens, who is under investigation by the Texas Department of Public Safety over accusations she ordered a staffer to conduct a virtual hearing in her place last year.
Many of the lawyers belong to the Dallas County Defense Lawyers Association, the group that filed a grievance last year with the State Commission on Judicial Conduct against Givens over the accusation. The Commission asked the Texas Rangers to investigate.
Givens responded by accusing the lawyers group of defamation and asked a civil court judge to allow her to take depositions from its members. She has denied the accusation and called it an effort to suppress the voters’ choice for the 282nd District Court.
Lawyers affiliated with the group say the civil proceedings alone are enough to have Givens removed from their cases. Prosecutors did not object to the recusals, and joined in some of the requests.
Administrative Judge Ray Wheless, who oversees a region including Dallas, granted two attorneys’ requests to transfer five cases to another court during a virtual hearing Friday. Givens did not attend the hearing.
Wheless said he will host additional hearings to consider the remaining cases. Givens voluntarily recused herself from about 20 cases not included in the 104, Wheless said.
In an email, Givens told The Dallas Morning News that state ethics rules for judges prohibit her from commenting about the recusals, the Rangers investigation or a pending case in which she is a witness. Her lawyer, Nicole Knox, previously said an investigation would show Givens and her staffer did nothing improper.
Also on Friday, Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot asked Wheless to recuse his office from the Rangers’ investigation, should they refer a case for prosecution. Wheless reassigned the matter to Fort Bend County District Attorney Brian Middleton.
Attorneys Jeff Lehman and Allan Fishburn, who are seeking recusals, want Givens to testify in one of their cases.
They represent Wesley Jones, who Givens said sent her threatening emails in an attempt to thwart his robbery trial last month. A jury found Jones guilty and sentenced him to life in prison.
During his trial, Jones enlisted a friend to send racist threats to Givens, authorities allege in an arrest-warrant affidavit. Jones faces a charge of making a terroristic threat against a peace officer or judge. Givens and Jones both are Black.
Jones’ lawyers asked for an examining trial to evaluate the evidence against him and issued a subpoena to Givens for her testimony. In a response, Givens suggested the lawyers want her to testify about issues that don’t pertain to Jones’ case. A hearing was delayed last week and is expected to be rescheduled.
Givens overwhelmingly won her bid for re-election this year, getting 53% of the vote against two challengers in the Democratic primary and avoiding a run-off. There is no Republican challenger on the November ballot, and Givens will begin her third four-year term as a judge in January.
The impersonation accusation
Defense lawyer Tim Jeffrey and prosecutor Eduardo Carranza presented Givens with paperwork Aug. 3 to reduce bail for Floyd Lee, who was jailed on accusations he violated the conditions of his probation in a burglary case, according to the judge and court records.
Givens said she called for an online proceeding to approve the bond reduction but had technical difficulties joining the meeting. She said she gave her login credentials to her court coordinator, Arceola Warfield, and called her by telephone. Warfield turned on the speaker on her phone so the judge could conduct the proceeding, Givens said.
The camera on the judge’s Zoom account remained off, so the lawyers could not see Givens or Warfield, according to the grievance.
The lawyers and probation officer involved contend the voice leading the proceeding was the court coordinator’s, not Givens’. Impersonating a public servant is a third-degree felony in Texas.
Givens emailed Creuzot in October and said she believed the prosecutor falsely alleged to other lawyers she had Warfield act as her.
Givens recused herself from Lee’s case in November. Later that month, the defense lawyers association filed the grievance.
The association filed the complaint as a supplement to a grievance to the state commission in July 2020 that accused Givens of mistreating people in her court, documents show. The first grievance, which the association provided to The News with names redacted, accused Givens of acting erratically on the bench and speaking disrespectfully to lawyers.
Givens told The News the accusations were a “false narrative” last year.
Lawyers continue to allege she treats people who come before her unfairly. Attorney Bret Schmidt told Wheless during last week’s hearing that Givens held him and a client in the courtroom for five hours during a hearing and scolded him for being unprepared for a case when he only received the evidence minutes earlier. His motion to recuse Givens was granted.
Lawyer Marcus Fellman told Wheless during the hearing that Givens ordered a client to sex-offender treatment even though he pleaded guilty to reckless bodily injury of a child. The client had been charged with indecency with a child, but Fellman said evidence presented to the judge couldn’t have led her to conclude he had committed a sexual offense. The client was a legal permanent resident of the United States, and the lawyer feared that the judge’s order could open him up to being deported.
Fellman submitted a transcript of the hearing to Wheless, which he said he considered in his decision to recuse Givens. His motion to recuse Givens was also granted.