A collection of civil rights groups, legal ethics experts and law school professors have lodged a formal complaint against 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Edith Jones. They allege she made a series of statements during a speech that demonstrated "racial bias" and indicated a "lack of impartiality."
Texas Civil Rights Project Director Jim Harrington says he forwarded the complaint on June 4 to the Judicial Council of the 5th Circuit, the court’s disciplinary body. The director of the Texas Civil Rights Project is among the 13 complainants.
The complaint arises primarily from a lecture Jones gave on Feb. 20 entitled "Federal Death Penalty Review" at the University of Pennsylvania School of Law.
The complaint alleges Jones made the following points during her lecture:
• The U.S. system of justice provides a positive service to capital-case defendants by imposing a death sentence, because the defendants are likely to make peace with God only in the moment before imminent execution;
• Certain "racial groups like African Americans and Hispanics are predisposed to crime," and are "prone to commit acts of violence," and get involved in more violent and "heinous" crimes than people of other ethnicities;
• Claims of racism, innocence, arbitrariness and international standards are simply "red herrings" used by opponents of capital punishment; and
• Mexican nationals would prefer to be on death row in the United States rather than in prison in Mexico.
The complainants have been unable to locate a video or audio recording of Jones’ lecture, says Chuck Herring, a partner in Austin’s Herring & Irwin. Herring says he advised the Texas Civil Rights Project in drafting the complaint, in cooperation with other lawyers.
The complaint cites affidavits filed by several people who attended the lecture and were offended by Jones’ comments. The complainants also include several African-American and Hispanic advocacy groups, four law school professors and two legal ethics experts.
"There are witness statements about her speech, and she may have a different version," Herring says.
Chris Kratovil, a member in the Dallas office of Dykema Gossett who clerked for Jones, says that while the 5th Circuit’s former chief judge is not one to shy away from controversy, "[T]here is no more honorable jurist in the United States than Judge Jones."
"There are a lot of people who — unfortunately, in my view — dislike Judge Jones, because she is a jurist with strong views that she articulates well. On some level, this sounds a bit like an ambush by some hostile audience members," says Kratovil, who did not attend the lecture.
"And if a university is not the place for free exchange of ideas — even controversial ideas — then there is no such place. These were not remarks made from the bench, but rather remarks in the academy. And that’s a very different context," Kratovil says.
By making the statements, the complaint alleges, Jones violated four canons of the Code of Conduct for United States Judges, including:
• Canon 1, which holds that a judge should uphold the integrity and independence of the judiciary;
• Canon 2, which provides that a judge should avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in all activities;
• Canon 3, which provides that a judge should perform the duties of the office fairly, impartially and diligently; and
• Canon 4, which provides that a judge should not participate in extrajudicial activities that detract from the dignity of the judge’s office or reflect adversely on the judge’s impartiality.
Jones, who served as chief judge of the 5th Circuit from 2006 until 2012, did not return a call for comment.
Harrington alleges that Jones’ conduct and statements indicate bias and deserve federal judicial discipline.
"When you hear this kind of really reprehensible bias by a judge who presides over peoples’ lives in death penalty appeals, you have to do something," Harrington says.
Dallas’ African-American Bar association is "very, very disturbed" by Jones’ alleged comments, says Mandy Price, president of the J.L. Turner Legal Association, which is among the complainants.
"The thing is that our system works because people believe they are going to have a fair trial and a judge who is not going to have bias about their case. And I think her statements show that she definitely has some bias and prejudicial views," Price says. "If I were a lawyer or a defendant before her, I’d be worried if my client would receive a fair trial before Judge Jones."
The complainants are "interested in having an investigation about what they think are some pretty serious statements," says Herring.
The complaint also alleges that Jones discussed eight individual death penalty cases during the lecture, and it notes that only two of the defendants in those cases have been executed — thus, the other defendants’ cases "could come before Judge Jones in future litigation."
"Her description of these cases evinced disgust and contempt towards the defendants, the crimes they were convicted of, and the claims they had raised," the complaint alleges.
The complaint also mentions an incident between Jones and fellow 5th Circuit Judge James Dennis, alleging that she "demonstrated extreme disrespect" during oral argument by asking Dennis if he "wanted to leave" the courtroom and saying she wanted him to "shut up."
According to the 5th Circuit’s Rules of Judicial Conduct and Judicial-Disability, the chief judge of the 5th Circuit is responsible for determining whether a complaint against a federal judge should be dismissed or referred to a special committee for further investigation.
Because the complaint concerns Jones, who is the former chief judge of the Judicial Council of the 5th Circuit, the complainants have asked 5th Circuit Chief Judge Carl Stewart to transfer the complaint to another circuit under Rule 26 of the Judicial Conduct and Judicial-Disability rules. Stewart did not return a call seeking comment.
Arthur Hellman, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, is an expert on federal judicial discipline and is not involved in the complaint. He says the complaint against Jones likely will be handled cautiously by a federal judicial discipline body, given the nature of the allegations lodged against her.
"The one that stands out is about certain ethnic groups being more prone to commit crime. That’s where it’s a real handicap not to have the exact text. Sometimes what you find out is there were some qualifying statements — that, ‘You will hear statements like’ or ‘I do not want the statement to indicate.’ Even if they are quoting her exact words, it could be the exact words could be misrepresenting what she said," Hellman says.
That said, judges have a right to make controversial statements, but those statements have consequences, Hellman says.
"It is extraordinarily imprudent and, indeed, foolish for judges to speak publicly in that way. Even if they are fully within their rights, even if it’s not misconduct, it is predictable that there will be controversy that will call into question the judges’ ability to decide certain cases impartially," Hellman says.
One consequence may be that lawyers representing death penalty clients on appeal will file recusal motions if Jones hears their cases, Herrington says.
"There will be motions to recuse her filed all over the place based on racial discrimination," Herrington says. "If I was a fellow judge on the 5th Circuit, I wouldn’t be happy, because she’s going to increase their case load. I don’t see how you can sit on a case when you’ve articulated these views."