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Helping judges who suffer from alcoholism, chemical dependency or mental illnesses to find help before their problems cost them their jobs is the goal of a program being implemented this summer by Texas’ State Commission on Judicial Conduct. Margaret Reaves, the commission’s executive director, says the Amicus Curiae Program will try to identify members of the judiciary who have these types of impairments and provide a venue for those judges to seek help confidentially. “There’s not another program like it in the United States,” Reaves says. While there are assistance programs for judges, such programs have not operated within the disciplinary area, she says. The commission is responsible for policing the conduct of more than 3,450 judges in Texas. Reaves says the new program will allow the commission to effectively address what’s going on with a judge and not just punish. When a constitutional amendment established the judicial conduct commission, the agency was given the power to punish judges for misconduct but wasn’t empowered to do anything to help them, says Lon Carpenter, a San Antonio banker and member of a panel recently appointed to oversee the program. “This will answer that,” says Carpenter, a vice president at Frost Bank. Robert J. Seerden, another member of the panel and former chief justice of Corpus Christi’s 13th Court of Appeals, says judges have the same kinds of problems as everyone else but that judges sometimes have difficulties admitting that they’re not perfect. Seerden, of counsel at Barger, Hermansen, McKibben & Villarreal in Corpus Christi, says judges — like top executives and doctors — often have people who can cover up for them until the problems become more serious. “Maybe, through this program, we’ll break through the denial,” Seerden says. The third member of the panel is Dr. Larry Schoenfeld, a psychologist with the University of Texas Health Sciences Center in San Antonio. Reaves says the commission appointed the panel in June to develop guidelines for the program, ensure that the public is protected and assure fiscal responsibility. The Legislature included $150,000 in the budget for the next two fiscal years so that the commission could start the program. Reaves credited Sen. Chris Harris, an Arlington lawyer and vice chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, with helping to secure the state appropriation. In June, the Court of Criminal Appeals awarded the commission a $45,000 grant for the program. The grant money must be spent before the state’s current fiscal year ends on Aug. 31 and will be used to purchase educational materials, Reaves says. SEEKING MENTORS Reaves says the idea for the program stems from two State Bar of Texas programs: the Professional Enhancement Program and the Texas Lawyers’ Assistance Program. PEP addresses professionalism issues not typically dealt with in the Bar’s grievance cases, while TLAP offers assistance to lawyers with drug and/or alcohol addictions and/or mental illnesses. Reaves says the Amicus Curiae Program won’t provide counseling or treatment but will help judges link up with services they might need. As part of the program, she says, the commission is recruiting judges around the state to serve as mentors, providing one-on-one support for impaired colleagues. The program also will educate the judiciary about impairments and how to identify judges who might be impaired by alcohol, drugs, mental illnesses or job burnout, Reaves says. Reaves says the complaints that the commission receives about judges are expected to be a major source of information about those who might need help. However, she says educating the judiciary about impairments may lead to tips about judges who need help. It’s easy to see that a judge who has been stopped for driving while intoxicated may have a problem but difficult to recognize that a judge who’s acting erratically on the bench or losing his temper may be impaired, Reaves says. But Reaves says that judges who’ve engaged in misconduct can’t avoid sanctions by seeking help through the Amicus Curiae Program. “This is not a free walk for a judge who has committed misconduct.” Reaves says the commission has a constitutional mandate to sanction a judge for any action that brings discredit to the judiciary. Receiving help may give a judge an opportunity to stay on the bench, she says. The two functions will be handled separately. To assure a judge’s confidentiality, the commission won’t know when it considers a complaint whether that individual is receiving help through the Amicus Curiae Program, Reaves says.

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