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Margaret Reaves wouldn’t mind if more people associated her name with judicial screw-ups. Hired last year as the executive director of the State Commission on Judicial Conduct — only the third person to hold the job in the commission’s 35-year history — Reaves shepherds a small, relatively unknown agency responsible for policing the professional conduct of 3,450 judges in Texas. With a staff of 15 and an annual budget of $722,000, Reaves’ job isn’t easy, given the limited resources. Complicating matters further, most Texans don’t even know they have the right to complain about the conduct of a judge. Or that her agency even exists. If the Texas legislature heeds changes suggested in a report released last month by the Sunset Advisory Commission, Reaves and her staff may soon be ushering in a new era of openness at an agency that, by design, conducts much of its business in secret. Overwhelmingly, the Sunset Commission report suggests raising the profile of the judicial conduct commission and publicizing its activities. They are recommendations Reaves embraces. “Sometimes the abuses involve our most vulnerable citizens,” Reaves says. “If we don’t speak out against those acts, then who will?” But in the past, speaking out hasn’t been an option for the commission. The Texas Government Code prevents the agency from revealing allegations against a judge until a trial starts. That’s a big problem if a judge is engaging in a pattern of abusive conduct while an unsuspecting public is kept in the dark, critics say. In the meantime, Reaves has made some simple changes so that the commission is more accessible to the public, including a toll-free hotline to the agency and complaint forms printed in Spanish. A Web site for the agency is in the works. “This was a task she was given and that’s to let the public know there is a place to file a complaint,” says William G. “Bud” Arnot III, chairman of the commission and chief justice of Eastland’s 11th Court of Appeals. “The people need a place to air their grievances, or they just assume it’s lawyers taking care of lawyers.” THE DISCIPLINARIAN Reaves is no stranger to the civil disciplinary arena. She served as regional counsel for the State Bar of Texas in San Antonio for a decade and handled countless grievances filed against lawyers. But even that job didn’t fully prepare her for the type of abuses committed by the people at the top of the legal food chain. “When you look at what some judges have done, I thought lawyers were creative with their misconduct,” Reaves says. According to suspension papers issued by the commission in one recent case, Amarillo Justice of the Peace Marvin Dean Mitchell was accused in late March of allegedly telephoning teenage girls at home and having explicit conversations with them after they appeared in court for truancy cases. The commission acted quickly, suspending the judge from service with pay on May 8. Mitchell was indicted in May on two counts of official oppression, and he pleaded no contest in June, according to the Potter County District Attorney’s Office. Mitchell resigned and the commission issued a reprimand on Aug. 18. Calls made to two separate Amarillo listings for M. Mitchell were not returned by press time. In April, the commission issued a public reprimand to Robert E. Hollman, a Title IV-D master for Ector County, after a secretary alleged he wanted her to participate in a bondage “game” in his office. He resigned four months before the reprimand was issued. Hollman’s lawyer, Steve Brannan of Odessa, says Hollman denies the allegations. Reaves has made sure that the media knows when the commission takes such actions. To protect the integrity of the judiciary, the public must know that such actions do not go unpunished, she says. “At the commission, we thought it was very important for the people in the community to know about that conduct,” Reaves says. “Our obligation is to publicize those kinds of actions.” A DIFFERENT APPROACH Reaves — whose salary is $90,000 a year — took over the top post at the commission from Robert Flowers, who retired as the commission’s executive director after 16 years. Lawyers and judges say Flowers was known for his soft touch with offending judges. He favored having judges agree to resign and never serve again instead of pursuing formal disciplinary actions against them. A resignation saved the commission additional investigative expenses. Flowers was recently involved in an auto accident and was not able to be interviewed for this story. Some believe Reaves is bringing a different philosophy to the commission, suggesting reprimands where they are appropriate even after judges have resigned. In the past, the agency frustrated state Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, a lawyer who previously carried a bill to open the commission’s records to the public. Gallego said in the early ’90s that the appointment offices of both the U.S. president and the Texas governor have been prevented from checking the background of judicial appointees with the commission. “For years, that was essentially an agency designed to protect the judiciary at all costs, and it wasn’t designed to protect the public. And under the new executive director, there is a new philosophy,” says Gallego, of counsel at Austin’s Davis & Wilkerson. “I think her heart’s definitely in the right place,” Gallego says. “The reality for me is that agency is rushing headlong into the 1950s. And with her she’s bringing it into the 1990s. But we still need to bring them into the 2000s.” Merrill Hartman, past chairman of the commission, says that both Reaves and Flowers understand their roles as chief advisers to the commission and have respected the rights of judges to have their say in a case filed against them. “Judging is about hearing the whole thing before you make a decision,” says Hartman, judge of Dallas’ 192nd District Court. “So when you’re judging judges, it would be an awful irony not to hear them out. I think both Bob and Margaret have been very sensitive to that.” Even government watchdogs who’ve not bothered to pay much attention to the commission are now watching Reaves with some interest to see if she will take a more aggressive stance with judges. “We’ll see how it all plays out. But all signs are that things are going to be different,” says Cris Feldman, staff attorney for Texans for Public Justice, whose group tracks campaign contributions to judges. “But again, we have a system that is riddled with ethical conflict in campaign contributions, and she does not have jurisdiction over that.” NO FEAR The 11-member commission made up of lawyers, judges and public members can take a variety of actions against a judge, ranging from a private warning to voting that the judge be removed from office for professional conduct violations. A seven-judge tribunal picked by the Texas Supreme Court, rather than the commission, determines if a judge should be removed. On Reaves’ watch, both the number of cases filed at the agency and the number of public actions taken against judges have risen. In fiscal year 1998, 922 cases were filed with the commission, eight of which resulted in public punishment. In fiscal year 2000, 1,186 cases have been filed, and 29 resulted in public punishment. Nearly half of all cases the commission receives do not contain allegations of official misconduct; for example, some are from parties upset with a judge’s ruling. James McCormack, who supervised Reaves as the State Bar’s general counsel from 1991 to 1996, believes the commission got an aggressive, yet even-handed leader when it decided to hire her. “Conscientious judges are always worried about a complaint filed with the judicial conduct commission. But a judge that cuts corners and doesn’t follow the rules is probably disdainful of having a complaint filed,” McCormack says. “And Margaret is a person to turn that false perception around.” “If I were a crooked judge, I wouldn’t want to meet her in a dark alley,” McCormack says. However, Reaves says she’s no bully and won’t be meeting any judges in dark passages. “Jim McCormack would have no fears. I don’t do business that way. I’m very straightforward, and people always know where they stand.” Nancy Robb, a Grand Prairie municipal judge, can vouch for that. Robb presided over a minor traffic accident case in June in which she was not only the judge but also the victim (her car had been hit by a teenager) — a clear violation of the Texas Judicial Code of Conduct. She called the offending driver into her court, assumed her guilt and ordered her to pay $700, according to a commission report. Robb says she realized she made a mistake and reported the incident to the commission. “I thought they were very, very respectful,” she says. “I really don’t have anything bad to say about the process.” Robb says that Reaves even agreed to send correspondence to Robb’s home instead of court so as not to upset her court staff. Robb received a public reprimand from the commission on Aug. 21, a decision she doesn’t quarrel with. “They do need to re-assure the public,” she says. “I don’t know what else I could have done other than not be stupid in the first place.”

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