Texas judicial misconduct panel is becoming less transparent
Private sanctions are more common than public ones.
Judges ultimately answer to the voters. But let’s face it, most voters pick along party lines when selecting these important public officials in what are normally down-ballot races. They often have no idea if the judges are qualified or how they’re behaving when elected.
That’s why the work of the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, which handles complaints about judges statewide, is so vitally important. And it’s why we’re concerned about a troubling trend by the panel recently to be more private than public in naming the judges it disciplines for misconduct.
Take the case of Dallas County Court at Law No. 1 Judge D’Metria Benson, who received a private sanction from the commission in May.
The commission reported the sanction but didn’t name Benson. We wouldn’t have known the specifics if we hadn’t learned about it independently.
Here are the details: Benson’s sanction stemmed from a complaint filed by prominent Dallas lawyer Les Weisbrod in connection with her handling of a medical malpractice case in 2021 and 2022.
Weisbrod filed a complaint alleging that Benson showed bias and prejudice in the case, had improper ex parte communications and failed to act promptly on several matters, including a motion to recuse herself. He provided us a May 16 letter from the commission confirming that it had voted to privately sanction her, but stating “the details of which we are not authorized to disclose.”
Benson, who was first elected in 2006 and has won re-election every four years since, declined our request for an interview. But this is just the most recent concern that we have had about her. And we’re not alone. She consistently draws low marks in the Dallas Bar Association’s biennial judicial evaluation poll. In 2021, 79% of respondents said her overall performance needed improvement.
But even more troubling than Benson’s behavior is the commission’s trend to protect judges like her by not naming them.
According to the commission’s fiscal 2022 annual report, the agency issued more than double the number of public sanctions, 56, than private ones, 27, in fiscal year 2021. Last year the number of public sanctions was only slightly higher than private sanctions, 40 vs. 38.
These sanctions do not include orders of suspension for judges which are a higher category of discipline and are always public.
This year’s statistics are even more troubling. Although the commission’s 2023 report has not yet been published, it has reported on its website just nine public but 20 private sanctions in fiscal 2023.
“Private reprimands do not serve the public well and hide incompetent judges from being held accountable,” Weisbrod tells us. “Voters, litigants and even other judges should have the right to be informed what the judge has done wrong.”
We wholeheartedly agree.
Commission executive director Jacqueline Habersham said she could not comment on what criteria it uses in issuing private sanctions instead of private ones. But more transparency in judicial disciplinary actions is necessary. We urge the panel to take that into account in issuing its decisions.