Judge Stephen R. Tittle, who lost his bid for reelection to Hunt County’s 196th District Court in the March primary, received more bad news on May 21, when the State Commission on Judicial Conduct issued a public reprimand of him. Two days later, on May 23, an appellate court conditionally granted a writ of mandamus against him.
Tittle referred questions to his lawyer, Kim Gustafson Bueno, an associate with Austin’s Scott, Douglass & McConnio. She emailed a statement, which read in part, “Judge Tittle is disappointed that the commission chose to issue a public reprimand. The Texas Constitution provides Judge Tittle with the ability to appeal this sanction by requesting a special court of review to conduct a public hearing. Judge Tittle is currently deciding how to proceed. However, the commission’s decision and any appellate action will not impact Judge Tittle’s current role as judge of the 196th District Court.”
The commission’s findings of fact addressed two sets of events. In one, the commission found that Tittle had threatened “to use duct tape” on Lauren Hudgeons, a Hunt County assistant district attorney, to stop her from discussing a motion before a jury, even though the prosecutor “had already apologized and promised not to engage in the conduct that offended the judge.”
Regarding another set of events, the commission found that Tittle engaged in “bullying treatment” of James “Jim” McKenzie, the director of the Hunt County Community Supervision and Corrections Department (CSCD), requiring him, for instance, to personally present presentence investigation reports, rather than allowing a deputy to do so.
McKenzie said, “I felt like I was vindicated. I would have liked to have seen him removed, though. He’s made my life hell. He’s aged me a quite a bit in the last three years.”
All told, the commission concluded that Tittle violated seven canons of the Texas Code of Judicial Conduct. They included canons that require judges to “act at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary” and “be patient, dignified and courteous to litigants, jurors, witnesses, lawyers and others with whom the judge deals in an official capacity.”
The CSCD sought the writ of mandamus after Tittle entered orders in 14 criminal cases waiving monthly fees that the CSCD previously had assessed against defendants as a condition of their community service. In its writ petition, the CSCD alleged that Tittle’s court had “abused its discretion in waiving the monthly fees.”
On May 23, the Sixth Court of Appeals in Texarkana conditionally granted the writ.
The commission’s May 21 ruling provides a “background” section separate from its findings of fact, which lays out the following: In 2011 McKenzie had delivered a letter to the Hunt County judges, including Tittle, notifying them that Christina Gaston, then a probation officer who served in Tittle’s court and qualified as a “friend” of the judge, “was under investigation for, among other things, creating an impression that she was in a special position to influence Judge Tittle’s conduct and judgment.” Within hours of McKenzie’s note about Gaston, Tittle sent McKenzie an email accusing McKenzie of “illegally collecting cash and exercise equipment from probationers that he later donated to a friend.” In his own email to the judges, McKenzie denied Tittle’s allegation. Gaston was then terminated, and she filed a wrongful termination suit in Travis County against the CSCD claiming whistleblower status; the suit is still pending. In her suit, Gaston contends that she was fired for reporting to Tittle about an alleged “illegal donation” by McKenzie of probationers’ cash and exercise equipment to the YMCA. The commission noted in a footnote that another Hunt County judge served on the YMCA board at that time.
Gaston’s lawyers, Rob Wiley and Colin Walsh of the Law Office of Rob Wiley in Austin, did not return a call seeking comment.
McKenzie denied Tittle’s and Gaston’s allegations. McKenzie said that, upon learning about a collection of cash and exercise equipment from probationers, he put a halt to the practice and donated the remaining items and money to the YMCA.
According to the commission’s finding of facts: In 2011, within two months of Gaston’s termination, Tittle ordered that McKenzie stop having a chief probation officer prepare and present presentence investigation reports, as required by law, and instead do them himself. When McKenzie continued to have the chief probation officer prepare and present the presentence investigation reports, Tittle began to pursue contempt proceedings against McKenzie, “despite having been advised” by the CSCD’s outside counsel “that the judge’s orders” to have McKenzie prepare and present the reports “were not lawful.” Then, at a criminal defendant’s sentencing hearing in 2012, Tittle called McKenzie to the stand and questioned him about his alleged failure “to set a good example for probationers” by not complying with the court’s orders to present the reports himself. McKenzie answered Tittle’s questions but not satisfactorily for the judge, who stated on the record about McKenzie: “He has no credibility, is not truthful and [the court] does not rely on any of his statements in the decision today.”
Despite the favorable rulings from the commission and the appeals court in late May, the CSCD will continue its battle with Tittle, McKenzie said, because Tittle ordered waivers of monthly supervision fees in some 80 cases (a number that included the 14 cases at issue in the appellate court’s ruling).
Joe Weis, a partner in Greenville’s Pemberton, Green, Newcomb & Weis, represents CSCD. He and McKenzie both said that those waivers have cost the county some $200,000 in payments. Now that the appeals court has ruled in their favor in 14 of those cases and the commission has issued a public reprimand of Tittle, Weis said he intends to help the county get the rest of the waived fees overturned and paid.
On May 30, Weis filed on behalf of CSCD motions in 31 cases to vacate orders Tittle had issued waiving defendants’ monthly supervision fees. By June 3, Tittle had issued rulings to vacate his previous waivers in both the 14 and other 31 cases, according to Weis.
Hudgeons did not return a call seeking comment. According to the commission’s findings of facts, during hearings before the start of a 2012 murder trial in front of Tittle, Hudgeons filed a motion to reduce the charge against the defendant, who had cooperated with the state in a related case. Hudgeons made her motion after she had made a plea deal with the defendant; she wanted the murder charge reduced to an aggravated assault with a deadly weapon charge. Tittle denied her request.
During voir dire, Hudgeons renewed her efforts to obtain a ruling on the same charge-reduction motion. In response, Tittle ordered Hudgeons “to stop talking and sit down under the threat of being detained by deputies.” He then had the venire panel escorted out of the courtroom and admonished Hudgeons, accusing her of “filibustering,” and he demanded an apology. She apologized.
The next day, before the jury returned, Tittle issued an order barring Hudgeons and the defendant’s lawyer from asking for plea reductions or mentioning plea agreements in the jury’s presence. Tittle implied he would use hardware supplies to muzzle Hudgeons and thereby force her to only have the option of writing her questions for prospective jurors, when he said, “We had an outburst yesterday in court. I believe the court has appropriately addressed it. However, should there be any further outbursts, Ms. Hudgeons, the court does have duct tape, does have a notepad and does have a pen.”