Tag Archives: Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct

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.

Ex-judge committed egregious act

This story got past me when it happened, so I’m a bit late commenting on it, but it does give the Texas legal community something to ponder — such as how severe a sanction should a judge face if he or she commits an egregious act of judicial misconduct.

Elizabeth Coker used to preside over the 258th District Court in rural East Texas. She resigned her judgeship a little more than a year ago after it was revealed that she sent text messages from the bench to a prosecutor — prompting her with questions to ask that would secure the conviction of a defendant.


The text messages were sent during a child abuse trial in August 2012 to Assistant Polk County District Attorney Kaycee Jones, who was in the middle of a criminal case in Coker’s court.

I don’t know where to begin with this.

The State Commission Judicial Conduct worked out a deal with Coker for her to quit her judgeship. All she had to do was resign from the bench and there would be no additional sanction.

I’ve always understood that judges often have expelled people from their courtrooms for using text devices while court is in session. A former Texas Supreme Court chief justice, Tom Phillips, once told me that in Texas judges can rule their courtrooms like tyrants if they choose to do so.

I suppose that Phillips also implied that judges can run courtrooms with amazing leniency if they so choose.

One of the many astonishing aspects of this case is that Coker then ran for Polk County district attorney after quitting the bench. She didn’t get the job.

This blows my mind. A judge sends a text message with instructions to a prosecutor on how to ask questions that would result in a conviction and all she had to do was quit?

She got off way too easy on this deal.


The Time magazine story goes through this case in significant detail.

What does the Commission on Judicial Conduct do about these cases? For that matter, why isn’t the Texas Bar Association pitching a serious fit to this day over Coker’s terrible judgment on the bench?

The Time article seeks to cast this case in some political context, noting that Republicans had taken over in a part of the state that once was reliably Democratic. Coker switched parties, from Democrat to Republican, and that apparently caused some ill feelings.

That has nothing to do with anything. Coker should have been punished with far more than just losing her bench seat.