Harris DA’s office wants to suspend a self-described socialist judge accused of ‘indefensible bias’
The Harris County District Attorney’s Office is seeking to suspend District Court Judge Franklin Bynum over a nearly two-year-long feud over accusations that he is biased against prosecutors and has given defendants too much leniency because of his self-described socialist political affiliation.
The State Commission on Judicial Conduct, which investigates complaints against judges and takes disciplinary actions, held a hearing Tuesday in response to multiple complaints filed by District Attorney Kim Ogg’s office in late 2020 to early 2021. The proceedings are typically private, but Bynum opted to make the recording of the hearing public.
Ogg’s office, in dozens of pages of complaints and supplements, accused Bynum of being “unnecessarily and unprofessionally rude and abusive to prosecutors” and said he “exhibited an indefensible bias against victims of crime.” The office also claimed he repeatedly released defendants on the basis that the state failed to establish probable cause.
“Judge Bynum has refused to enforce Texas law as it is written,” First Assistant David Mitcham wrote in one of the complaints. “Intead he has substituted his own unwritten code of criminal procedure in a manner intended to prejudice the State of Texas’s ability to prosecute criminal cases.”
Other accusations had to do with Bynum’s court procedures during the pandemic; however, the subject was barely discussed during the hearing.
Bynum denied that any actions he took were outside the bounds of the law.
His attorney, Nicole DeBorde Hochglaube, told commissioners that the complaints should be dismissed, but at the very least, Bynum should be allowed to finish out his term, which ends in December.
A spokesman for the district attorney’s office declined to comment further on the matter Tuesday.
Bynum was elected as a misdemeanor court judge in 2018 as part of a Democratic sweep. In last month’s Democratic primary, he lost to Harris County Assistant District Attorney Erika Ramirez for the party’s nomination.
The election of a candidate who proudly described himself as a socialist to the court garnered national attention — with feature articles written by the New York Times, Jacobin Magazine and other major publications. One such article published by The Nation magazine, titled “Franklin Bynum Is a Texas Judge Who Wants to Abolish Prisons,” was cited in the complaints by Ogg’s office, as proof of his partiality.
Bynum ran on a platform of ending the cash bail system so that people aren’t detained solely because they can’t afford to be released before trial, combating subtle or overt encouragement by prosecutors for defendants to take plea deals, and increasing the use of diversion programs that allow certain defendants to avoid jail time.
After his election to the bench, Bynum became a defendant in the federal case and helped to settle Harris County’s historic misdemeanor bail reform suit that established an end to some poor defendants being jailed on low-level charges, while those with money could post bail and walk free.
In multiple interviews, Bynum described the 2017 decision by the federal judge in that case finding the county’s bail system unconstitutional as the inspiration for his campaign.
“At that point, I saw an opportunity because I never wanted to be a judge, but I saw that the system as it was, was going to be destroyed,” Bynum told The Nation. “And I knew that there would be a new system built in its place. And I saw that I had the opportunity to try to see the demolition through, and see the design of something different.”
At Tuesday’s hearing, Bynum and his attorney DeBorde Hochglaube framed Ogg’s fight against him as politically motivated, owing in large part to the ideological divide between the two on the bail issue.
“The tone and the tenor from the DA’s office toward the judges has been extremely hostile and threatening out of sight of the courtroom,” Bynum said. “In the courtroom, the line prosecutors … the relations are good in there. But in the high-level meetings, they were very confrontational and threatening, constantly.”
DeBorde Hochglaube drew attention to a Texas Monthly article last month highlighting that 14 Harris County prosecutors and one investigator had filed to run for criminal court judgeships this year, compared with none in 2020 and one in 2018.
Several of the commissioners, including Chair David Schenck and Vice-Chair Janis Holt, appeared convinced that Bynum’s actions outside the court threatened to ruin the public’s perception of him as impartial.
During one particularly contentious part of the hearing, Holt, a public member of the commission appointed by Gov. Greg Abbott, told Bynum a photo of him wearing a “defund the police” shirt at an unknown date, shared in a social media post by the Houston Police Officers’ Union, was “offensive.” Her son is a police officer and she worries about his safety every day, she said.
Bynum initially said he didn’t recall when the photo was taken and whether he was a judge at that point, but later in the hearing, he said he now understands how it could cause pain.
The district attorney’s office in 2019 filed a formal complaint against another misdemeanor judge, Darrell Jordan, who was also a key player in the bail reform settlement, accusing him of unprofessional interactions with prosecutors in his court. No public sanctions were ever released, though the commission could have disciplined Jordan privately.
If Bynum is suspended, he will have an opportunity to appeal to a panel of three court of appeals justices selected by the Texas Supreme Court’s chief justice.
Staff writer Nicole Hensley contributed to this report.