Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct tries to hold judges to high standards of conduct on and off the bench, according to its mission statement.
While the commission is able to discipline a judge for perceived misconduct or improper behavior, discretion to permanently remove a judge from the bench is the purview of the Texas Supreme Court, State Commission on Judicial Conduct Executive Director Jacqueline Habersham said.
“When you’re talking about removal, that’s a whole different type of process that we have to go through,” she said. “The Supreme Court has to order removal.”
When news broke this month about Guadalupe County Court-At-Law Judge Bill Squires’ arrest, some in the community called for his job. There was talk of having him removed from the bench.
While Squires faces legal troubles, he is innocent until proven guilty and, as yet, there are no grounds for his removal, Guadalupe County Attorney David Willborn said the day after the arrest.
If obvious grounds for unseating Squires presented themselves, taking away his judgeship is no small feat.
The State Commission on Judicial Conduct members or those who work for the commission are precluded by statute from discussing specific cases, Habersham said. Investigations and disciplinary actions not yet in the public are exempt from public discussion, she said.
Talking about cases from a general standpoint is allowed as well as outlining the process by which judges typically can be admonished in Texas, Habersham said.
The commission has three forms of discipline and all three can be carried out publicly or privately, she said.
“It can be anywhere from an admonition, warning or reprimand, and either one of those can be public or private,” Habersham said.
Often the process of disciplining a judge starts with a complaint, she said. Commission staff is prohibited from discussing pending complaints or investigations unless some public disciplinary action is taken, Habersham said.
Even with private discipline, the commission posts information on its website describing a judge’s acts that led to the discipline but without specifically identifying the judge, she said.
“Typically, we do report on our website a summary of the conduct, not necessarily naming the judge or the county in which the judge lives,” Habersham said. “But we do give a summarization of the particular conduct the judge engaged in.”
Public sanctions are published on the website with full text, she said.
Anyone may file a complaint against a judge though it must be in writing, Habersham said. Following receipt of complaints, the commission may act against a judge, she said.
“If we have a complaint on a judge, a judge who may have been arrested for some type of felony offense, the commission can take some interim action, which includes suspension from office if the judge has been indicted for some felony offense by a federal or state grand jury,” Habersham said. “A judge may be suspended from office pending resolution of that criminal case.”
Complaints can originate from within the commission, she said. Commission complaints may be based on information gleaned from news media or similar sources, Habersham said.
But typical complaints come from outside the commission ranks, she said.
“Typically, if a judge has been indicted for a criminal offense, we find out about it either through a written complaint or from law enforcement in that particular county,” Habersham said. “If there has been a felony indictment, our procedural rules for the removal and retirement of judges allows the commission to take some interim action including suspending a judge from office pending the resolution of a criminal case.”
Still, the commission itself doesn’t have that authority to remove a judge from the bench permanently. And the process to do so can be a long one, involving a trial at the highest court in the state.
Removal of a judge more likely happens by the vote of the people, Habersham said.