Time of My Life, Part 18: Serving as a judicial watchdog

Every so often reporters and editors encounter public officials who actually appreciate the work of holding those officials accountable for their actions.

I met a few of those folks along the way during my 37 years as a journalist. One of those individuals stands out. I want to discuss him briefly to demonstrate that some individuals do not view the media as “the enemy of the people.”

I arrived at the Amarillo Globe-News in January 1995 after spending nearly 11 years as editorial page editor of the Beaumont Enterprise way down yonder in the Golden Triangle region of the Gulf Coast.

We got into our share of scrapes in Beaumont. One fight we had was with a couple of state district judges in Jefferson County. They presided over courts with criminal jurisdiction, meaning that they only tried criminal cases; the civil caseloads were sent to other judges in Jefferson County.

Well, these two judges had to face the Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct, which had received a complaint about the judges’ sentencing practices. These two jurists were in the habit of backdating sentences for individuals convicted of crimes. Example: If someone committed a crime on Jan. 1, but was convicted on Dec. 30, the judge would sentence the individual to a prison term that began prior to the commission of the crime. Such a sentencing practice dramatically reduced the amount of time the individual would serve behind bars.

Such sentencing policies don’t sit well with prosecutors. The judicial ethics commission got a complaint and it dropped the hammer on the two judges. It issued a public reprimand, which in the world of judicial punishment is a real big deal.

We at the Beaumont Enterprise editorialized in support of the Commission on Judicial Conduct’s ruling. We were highly critical of the backdated sentences that were handed down. Our criticism of the local judges obviously angered the two men, but that didn’t dissuade us from calling it the way we saw it.

My time in Beaumont ended and I gravitated to the Panhandle in early 1995. I quickly made the acquaintance of one of the judges who punished the two judges in Beaumont. He was John Boyd, chief justice of the 7th Texas Court of Appeals headquartered in Amarillo.

Justice Boyd knew of my background and for years after our first meeting he would invariably bring up the editorial support we gave to the judicial conduct panel on which he served. He would tell others with whom we would meet of the position we took to endorse the punishment handed out to those backdating judges.

I always appreciated — and still do! — the recognition that we sought only to hold judges accountable for their actions. If any of “our” judges got stepped on, well, so be it.

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