Lawyers say Dallas judge had staff member pretend to be her during online court proceeding
A group of defense lawyers has accused a Dallas judge of ordering her court coordinator to pretend to be her in an online proceeding.
The Dallas County Defense Lawyers Association filed a complaint last week with the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, alleging that State District Judge Amber Givens’ coordinator, Arceola Warfield, illegally acted as the judge in a hearing to consider a suspect’s bail and conditions for release from jail.
The judge “actively controls most aspects of her docket, so we don’t believe that the coordinator acted independently but rather at the explicit direction of Judge Givens,” the defense lawyers association president, Amanda Branan, said.
The association shared its grievance with The Dallas Morning News on Wednesday but redacted the names of the other people involved.
Givens denied the allegations and said the prosecutor in the case spread misinformation.
Dallas police and the Dallas County Sheriff’s Office said they were not conducting a criminal investigation into the matter, and Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot declined to comment on whether his office is investigating.
The state commission does not release information about its investigations or complaints it receives unless public action is taken. The commission has not taken public disciplinary action against Givens, executive director Jacqueline Habersham said.
Givens recused herself from the case Nov. 18. She said she thought doing so was appropriate when she learned of the accusation against her.
Impersonating a public servant is a third-degree felony in Texas.
Givens, a Democrat who has served on the bench since 2015, is up for re-election next year. No one else had filed for the seat as of Tuesday. The filing deadline is Dec. 13.
Givens, a former prosecutor in the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office, did not say whether she had been notified she was being investigated.
“If I receive something that requires a response, I’ll certainly provide one,” Givens told The News in an email.
The judge said defense attorney Tim Jeffrey and prosecutor Eduardo Carranza presented her with paperwork Aug. 3 to reduce bail for Floyd Lee, who was jailed on accusations that he violated the conditions of his probation in a burglary case.
Givens said she called for an online proceeding to approve the bond reduction. She said she had technical difficulties joining the meeting online so she gave her log-in credentials to her court coordinator and called her by telephone.
Givens said the coordinator turned on the speaker on her phone so the judge could conduct the proceedings. The camera on the judge’s Zoom account remained off so the parties could not see the judge or the coordinator, according to the grievance.
Givens said the proceeding did not constitute a hearing because she was not ruling on contested issues, so a court reporter did not transcribe the proceeding.
The lawyers and probation officer involved contend the voice leading the proceeding was the court coordinator’s, not Givens’, according to the grievance.
During the proceeding, the lawyers and probation officer referred to the voice as “judge” and “your honor” and were not urged not to use those titles, Branan said.
Givens said the prosecutor, Carranza, falsely claimed she was not on the call. She said he did not confirm his impression with the court coordinator or with sheriff’s officers who were in the courtroom.
The judge said the defense lawyer repeated Carranza’s account to other lawyers.
“I haven’t chalked the matter up to one particular thing, but it could range from a misunderstanding to a malicious allegation,” Givens said.
Branan, the association’s president, said that after lawyers reported the problem, the association conducted an inquiry with the lawyers who were involved, as well as other lawyers who were in the online meeting waiting for their matters to be considered.
The association determined that the person who was serving the role of judge agreed to reduce Lee’s bail from $100,000 for $25,000 and required him to wear an electronic monitor as a condition of release from jail.
The court reporter spoke during the proceeding and told the person who was acting as judge to say “off the record,” which is what a judge says when he or she wants the court reporter to stop transcribing proceedings. Branan said that instruction to the court reporter indicates that a transcript of the proceeding should exist.
The association’s inquiry found that the prosecutors in the online proceeding alerted their supervisor, who contacted the defense attorney and told him the judge’s coordinator had conducted the proceeding.
Jeffrey, the defense attorney, did not respond to requests for comment.
The supervisor approached two probation officers and saw a note in their file that said, “Judge was not present for the hearing,” according to the grievance.
When the supervisor tried to speak with the probation officers again later, they told her their own supervisor instructed them not to discuss the case unless they were compelled to do so with a subpoena, according to the grievance.
Probation Director Arnold Patrick did not respond to requests for comment.
According to the association’s grievance, Givens emailed the district attorney, Creuzot, asking him to fire the prosecutor who was involved and saying that she intended to file a grievance against him.
Creuzot, who did not give his prosecutors permission to comment, confirmed on Wednesday he received the email from the judge. He added that his office had not received a formal complaint about the prosecutor through its review committee. The prosecutor was not disciplined, he said.
Three prosecutors who were previously assigned to Givens’ court, including Carranza, were moved to other courts this week, but Creuzot declined to explain why they were reassigned.
The association filed the complaint as a supplement to a grievance to the state commission in July 2020 that accused Givens of mistreating people who come before her, documents show. The first grievance, which the association also provided to The News with redacted names, accused Givens of acting erratically on the bench and speaking disrespectfully to lawyers.
Branan said it was rare for the defense lawyers association to submit judicial complaints.
“It is something we do not take lightly and we do them under extreme circumstances,” she said. “What has happened in Judge Givens’ court and her behavior toward attorneys and anyone that is before her is not appropriate.”
That grievance describes three proceedings that were conducted online after in-person court appearances were suspended because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Givens continues to conduct virtual court for most hearings.
The association said that Givens removed recordings of the proceedings from public view but that its members saved the videos and sent them to the board. The association did not share the videos with The News.
“Judge Givens has consistently demonstrated a poor judicial temperament, highlighted by aggression, condescension and disrespect towards attorneys practicing in her court,” according to the original grievance, which was signed by former defense lawyers association president Sheridan Lewis.