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A bill pending before a Texas House committee would require judges to receive racial and ethnic sensitivity training aimed at preventing biased sentences and the use of racial slurs in the courtroom. State Rep. Rick Noriega, the sponsor of H.B. 546, told the House Judicial Affairs Committee at a March 5 hearing that such training is required for employees of major corporations, U.S. military officers and police officers, but not for judges. “It’s ironic that those persons who are in the best position to determine someone’s fate are not required to have any training,” said Noriega, D-Houston. Under his bill, judges of district courts, statutory county courts, statutory probate courts and other judicial officers would be required during their first term to complete at least four hours of training that would include information on cultural differences among ethnic or racial minorities. Thereafter, they would have to take three hours of training during each additional term of office. Noriega said the courses dealing with cultural differences would be included in the 16 hours of training required of judges. The bill also requires the Court of Criminal Appeals to report the names of judges who failed to take the training. Rules for the training would be adopted by the CCA. Noriega said his bill was prompted by a Houston judge’s 1999 order that prohibited a Mexican national from speaking Spanish at home in the presence of her school-age daughter. Judge Lisa Millard, a family court judge, had issued the order in a child custody suit to help the little girl improve her performance in school. Millard was recused from the case in August 2000. Millard did not return a call seeking comment. The incident “opened up a Pandora’s box,” Noriega said, adding that he sees a pattern of abuse by judges. Noriega cited other incidents — including one in which a Fort Bend County judge, whom he declined to identify, four times called an African-American man who appeared before him a racial epithet. “This bill is long overdue,” Joel Salazar, president of the Mexican-American Bar Association of Houston, testified. Salazar, a Houston solo, said it is a common practice among judges in Harris County to order $25,000 bonds for foreign nationals charged with misdemeanor offenses. Felony court judges disallow bond or probation for offenders who are not American citizens, he said. Frumencio Reyes Jr., with Reyes & Reyes/Castillo in Houston, said some judges assume that anyone who looks Latino is Mexican, which can offend people. “Guatemalans are very sensitive to being called Mexican; Salvadorans are, too,” Reyes said. Mary Kay Bickett, executive director of the Texas Center for the Judiciary, said judges currently must take 16 hours of training each year. According to Bickett, a bill passed by the Legislature in 1993 requires a judge, during his or her first term, to take eight hours of training on family violence, sexual assault and child abuse. In the 1999 session, lawmakers added a requirement that a judge take another three hours of the training during each subsequent term, she said. Bickett said a course on racial sensitivity is not required for judges but that a part of every program the center presents deals with ethics. District Judge Lamar McCorkle of Houston, chairman of the State Bar’s judicial section, told the committee that he was prohibited by the canons of judicial conduct from giving an opinion about the proposed legislation. But he said training on racial sensitivity is part of a national trend in education. “This issue is a training issue for us; it is a part of what we’re already doing,” said McCorkle, presiding judge of the 133rd District Court. Rene Rodriguez, state treasurer of the Young Conservatives of Texas and a sophomore at Baylor University, questioned the need for judges to take the training. “Bad judges, if there are bad judges, are weeded out,” Rodriguez said. “Trust me, bad judges are still sitting on the benches,” said Rep. Carlos Uresti, a Democrat and lawyer from San Antonio. “It’s unfortunate, but that’s true.” What supporters of the bill are trying to do is prevent judges from making disparaging comments to minorities, Uresti said. “Are you a wetback? Are you an illegal alien?” Rep. Domingo Garcia, a Dallas Democrat and lawyer, asked. Garcia said a judge had asked those questions of one of his clients, who was an American citizen. Garcia asked Rodriguez whether that judge should receive training that such comments are inappropriate from the bench. Rodriguez said the situation should be addressed by telling the judge that he shouldn’t make such comments and by reporting his actions. “I don’t think that should mean he should have to go to additional training,” the YCT member said. At Noriega’s request, the bill was left pending before the committee while he works on its provisions.

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