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The public could be told sooner when judges face “charges” that could cause them to be disciplined or removed from the bench if the Texas Legislature adopts recommendations made by a legislative panel. The Sunset Advisory Commission voted 9-0 on Nov. 14 to recommend that the public be notified when the State Commission on Judicial Conduct files formal “charges” to institute proceedings against a judge. Scott Mann of Lubbock, chairman-elect of the judicial conduct commission, applauds the recommendation, which will be sent to the Legislature for consideration during the session next year. “It is an improvement because it allows us to proceed in a more efficient manner,” Mann says. While law requires that formal hearings to discipline or remove a judge be open to the public, the disciplinary agency is not allowed to give advance notice of such proceedings. That makes it difficult for the agency to conduct an investigation, says Seana Willing, the commission’s senior counsel. Even though the agency can’t divulge information about the proceedings, it still must round up witnesses and do the discovery required for a fact-finding hearing, she says. Willing says witnesses are told that there is a matter that requires their presence at a particular time and place, but they aren’t informed about the nature of the proceedings. “It’s kind of nudge-nudge, wink-wink confidential before the gavel drops,” she adds. The 11-member commission has jurisdiction over 3,459 judges and judicial officers in Texas. A constitutional amendment passed by voters in 1965 created the agency to investigate complaints about judges and take action if necessary. Like all other state agencies, the commission goes through a “sunset” review every 12 years. But the Legislature cannot eliminate the commission because its existence is required by the Texas Constitution. In fiscal year 1999, the commission dismissed 781 of the 856 complaints it processed, the sunset commission reported. In that year, the agency ordered 20 public sanctions — including seven reprimands, two warnings and 11 admonitions — and also ordered 19 private sanctions, according to the report. The commission decides whether to begin formal proceedings against a judge — similar to filing a suit — during an informal hearing. Most complaints are dismissed at that point. The sunset panel recommended that the people who bring complaints against judges be given a chance to request confidentiality so they don’t fear retaliation from a judge. That would not be much of a change, commission officials say. “We try, to the extent possible, to protect the confidentiality of complainants,” Willing says, adding that the sunset recommendation would codify the policy. But complainants would not be guaranteed absolute confidentiality. Margaret Reaves, executive director of the commission, says a complainant’s confidentiality ends if it becomes necessary to inform the judge about the details of an investigation. “If we have independent information that we could provide the judge that would give the judge enough specifics to adequately respond without providing the name, then we could and we do, do that,” Reaves says. “If the name has to be revealed for the judge to be able to refute the allegations, then we would do that, but the complainant would be advised first,” she adds. Reaves says that no judge ever can be sanctioned based on information that he cannot fully understand. If an investigation does not result in formal charges being filed, the complaint is not on the judge’s record, she says. The sunset panel made a number of other recommendations meant to make it easier for the commission to do its job. If the Legislature agrees, the commission could obtain from the Department of Public Safety the criminal history of a judge being investigated and the complainants in the case. The general counsel of the State Bar of Texas already receives such information, the sunset report notes. Like the State Bar, the commission would have to keep the information confidential and destroy it once a case has been decided. The panel recommended that the commission be allowed to share information regarding criminal acts that a judge has committed, or is about to commit, with law enforcement authorities. It also recommended that the commission be allowed to release information about a judge’s eligibility to serve on the bench to the governor and other public officials who make judicial appointments. Another recommendation would require the commission to develop easily understood materials describing the complainant process and the types of sanctions that can be levied against judges. The information would be made available in English and Spanish.

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