Too many secrets at the Commission on Judicial Conduct?

The Austin-American Statesman has an important article (“Texas judges’ misdeeds often kept secret by oversight commission“) for those of us concerned about judicial ethics. The Commission on Judicial Conduct (CJC) has made it harder for citizens to trust the judges they elect and it is impossible for the public to judge the fairness of the CJC’s decisions when little information is released. As the Statesman reports:

While some judges may receive a relatively harsh public sanction, with details of their cases made available for public consumption, most of the reprimands meted out by the commission in a given year… are kept private, with only the rough outlines of the case made public. No identifying information about the judge or his or her jurisdiction is released, and the penalty has no real impact beyond a notation in the commission’s records and the judge’s conscience.


The CJC defends it secrecy based on worries that judges could be subjected to political attacks based on false claims. However, we allow our governor and other elected officials to face such attacks. We need a pretty good reason to protect our elected judges from similar scrutiny.

There might be some point in protecting judges to protect the image of state courts from the ravages of politics. However, we turned our courts into political offices when we decided to elect them in partisan elections and protecting judges from political attacks also protects them from the kind of scrutiny needed to make elected officials accountable. Rules that say we can only get good news about elected officials are contrary to democracy.

The CJC’s fourteen employees hardly seem like enough staffing to investigate the 1,200 complaints they  receive every year. The  commission is headed by thirteen unpaid commissioners who serve six-year terms. Six commissioners are judges chosen by the Texas Supreme Court, two are lawyers appointed by the State Bar of Texas, while the remaining five are ordinary citizens appointed by the governor.

The limited staffing and the secrecy behind CJC investigations are fundamentally at odds with the very public and very political nature of our judicial elections. The laws of Texas and CJC rules seem more concerned about protecting the reputation of judges than serving  the needs of the judicial election system we rely on to choose them.

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