Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Judge resigns after texting controversy

Back in March I wrote about a disturbing incident involving State District Judge Elizabeth Coker in Polk County (see "Text parte communications"). For those of y'all not familiar with the story, Judge Coker allegedly sent a text message to a prosecutor in the middle of trial suggesting questions she might want to ask.

The allegations came from an investigator for the Polk County District Attorney's Office and also included the fact that the DA, William Lee Hon, not only saw the message but authorized it to be passed along to the prosecutor trying the case.

I called for Judge Coker to step down from the bench as a result of her conduct.

And, yesterday, she did. As part of an agreement with the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, Elizabeth Coker will step down from the bench for the 258th Judicial District Court as of December 6, 2013. She will take a leave of absence immediately, however.
"My dad and grandfather taught me that judges have to be accountable for their actions and conduct. Resigning the bench as well as taking a voluntary leave of absence is the best way for me to take responsibility for this situation in a way that honors the office and serves the best interests of Polk, San Jacinto and Trinity counties. It has been a painful decision, but I believe it is the right decision.
"I want to express my sincere regret to the people of Polk, San Jacinto and Trinity counties. 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.
"The Judicial Commission takes the rules surrounding judicial interaction with parties in a lawsuit very seriously, and I will always regret the lapses in judgment that helped create this situation, especially knowing that my conduct as a judge is subject to a higher standard.
"It has been an honor of a lifetime serving as judge, and I will always be grateful the people of this district gave me such an amazing opportunity, and I am very sorry for the difficulty this has caused for everyone.
"My family has deep roots in Polk County, and now I am raising my girls in the same community that gave me my start. We will be starting a new chapter here for our family, and as always I ask for your support and prayers. The kindness, friendship, and love of so many people in these three counties have always sustained us, and I will always be grateful for that." -- Elizabeth Coker
According to news reports there were additional allegations that Ms. Coker had improper ex parte communications with other prosecutors and defense attorneys. There were also allegations that she spoke with jurors during the course of trial.

Ms. Coker's actions disgraced both herself and the bench. Her fall from power was (relatively) swift and hard. However, I'm not so certain that this agreement is in the best interest of the State of Texas. I do believe that the public has a right to know the extent and level of Ms. Coker's misconduct on the bench. This case raises serious questions about due process and whether or not criminal defendants received fair trials in her court. The allegations also raise questions about plea negotiations - how many defendants pled guilty to charges because they didn't think they would get a fair trial in front of Ms. Coker?

A bigger question still is whether the punishment fit the crime? With such ethical lapses in a position of authority, should Ms. Coker even be allowed to keep her bar card?

And what about Mr. Hon? As I pointed out back in March, he knew the communication was improper, yet he allowed the information to be passed on to the trial prosecutor anyway. He had a duty to act ethically and he failed to do so. He shouldn't escape from this mess without as much as a slap on the wrist. And, let's be honest, the incident that served to bring Ms. Coker down wasn't the first time it had happened - and it (more than likely) wasn't the first time that Mr. Hon was aware of the improper communications. Still, he sat quiet and did nothing to stop it.

And, what about Judge Kaycee Jones? She was the prosecutor who received the message (again, probably not the first time) and now she sits on the bench for the 414th Judicial District Court. She knew the rules when she was a prosecutor. She knew the communication was improper and she, too, failed to do anything about it. In fact, she benefited from the communication.

Maybe she and Mr. Hon can teach an ethics class together.

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