An East Texas state district judge has agreed to resign voluntarily from the bench on Dec. 6. Her decision comes after an investigation by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct alleged that she engaged in improper ex parte communication by texting a prosecutor while presiding over a criminal trial.
According to her voluntary agreement with the commission, which was released on Oct. 21, 258th District Judge Elizabeth Coker was presiding over State v. David M. Reeves in August 2012 when she allegedly sent text messages to then-Polk County Assistant District Attorney Kaycee Jones.
Based on complaints and media reports about the trial, the commission investigated allegations that Coker used Jones to privately communicate information to the assistant district attorney prosecuting Reeves “to suggest questions for the prosecutor to ask during the trial; to ensure that a witness was able to refresh his memory and rehabilitate his testimony by reviewing his videotaped interview with law enforcement before he took the stand for the second time the following day, and to discuss legal issues pertinent to the case,” according to the agreement. The jury eventually found Reeves not guilty.
The commission also investigated claims that Coker allegedly engaged improper ex parte communications with other prosecutors and defense attorneys with cases pending in her court; “that Judge Coker allegedly exhibited a bias in favor of certain attorneys and a prejudice against others in both her judicial rulings and her court appointments”; and that “Judge Coker allegedly met with jurors in an inappropriate manner, outside the presence of counsel, while the jurors were deliberating in one or more criminal trials,” according to the agreement.
The commission also “expressed concerns” that Coker discussed the investigation “with a material witness prior to that witness’ testimony before the Commission in an apparent attempt to influence that witness, and the judge may not have been candid and truthful in her testimony before the Commission when questioned about her contact with the witness,” according to the agreement.
Coker did not return a call for comment. But in a written statement, Coker pointed out that the “Judicial Commission made no finding or determination of fact in my voluntary resignation, and I have not admitted guilt, fault or liability in my voluntary resignation,” Coker wrote. “While I could have fought these allegations, it would have involved significant time, significant expense, and disruption to everyone involved,” Coker wrote.
The 258th Judicial District includes Polk, San Jacinto and Trinity Counties. “I want to express my sincere regret to the people of Polk, San Jacinto and Trinity counties,” Coker continued in her statement. “The integrity and impartiality of our courts have always been my highest priority, and I am deeply sorry that my actions created a circumstance where that could be questioned.”
Dick DeGuerin, a partner in Houston’s DeGuerin Dickson Hennessey & Ward who served as special counsel for the commission for Coker’s disciplinary complaint, notes that “as the agreement shows, the commission heard testimony, and it did some pretty in-depth investigating.”
“Commonly — and particularly in smaller communities — there is some ex parte going on, but it shouldn’t,” DeGuerin says. “What the commission did in this case is investigate some very specific allegations and heard testimony about all of those.”
DeGuerin says he agreed to handle Coker’s case at the behest of Tom Cunningham, the commission’s outgoing chairman, and was paid a $1 fee for agreeing to represent the commission.
DeGuerin, a well-known criminal-defense lawyer, says the case represents the first time he’s brought allegations against a party since he left the Harris County District Attorney’s Office in 1968.
“I haven’t had this opportunity before, but I’m a very strong believer in the integrity of the judicial process, and I think the work the Commission on Judicial Conduct does is excellent, and, not just for Texans, but all of those in the legal community can be proud of their work,” DeGuerin says.
Jones, who is now the 411th District Court judge in Polk County, declines comment.
Lee Hon, the Polk County criminal district attorney, says he and his office cooperated with the commission’s investigation of Coker. Hon says an investigator in his office told him about the alleged text messages between Coker and Jones within a day or two.
“I confronted Ms. Jones, who was an assistant prosecutor, and she admitted to me that a text message was sent. At any rate, I admonished her. They were pretty good friends away from the bench,” Hon says of Coker and Jones.
Hon says the Reeves case involved allegations of injury to a child. His office previously had negotiated a plea agreement with the defendant for probation and some jail time, “but Judge Coker rejected that plea agreement,” he says.
“That was something that went to trial because she wouldn’t accept the plea agreement,” Hon says. “Ultimately, the jury didn’t feel there was evidence beyond a reasonable doubt. That, to a degree, is frustrating to us about the whole situation.”
Ryan Deaton of Lufkin’s Deaton Law Firm represented Reeves. “I don’t want to pile on, because we all make mistakes, and obviously this is a pretty serious mistake. But it is good to know that we have a governing body that would stand up and make a tough decision like this,” Deaton says.
“In my mind, there are lots of times in trials and in court proceedings around the state of Texas where things aren’t fair. And there are suspicions, but it never comes to light. But, in this case it did. And I guess I’m just happy to see somebody do something about it, and hopefully it’s taught everyone a lesson.”
“It’s obviously an unfortunate turn of events for how it looks for the judicial system,” Hon says of the allegations in Coker’s agreement. “And I feel bad about that.”