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Laura Higley

Justice Higley resigns

This is clearly the best course of action.

Justice Laura Higley

Justice Laura Carter Higley, who lives in West University and served on the Houston-based court, submitted her notice to Gov. Greg Abbott, the appeals court’s clerk confirmed Tuesday. In the letter, she did not offer a reason for stepping down from the bench, he said.

“Her service is appreciated by us and the state of Texas,” clerk Christopher Prine said.

The justice, a Republican, has held Place 5 on the court since 2002. She was re-elected in 2008 and 2014, with her term set to expire December 2020.

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It’s unknown whether Justice Higley has been on the receiving end of any official complaints related to her work. Those would be brought to the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, the oversight group for judges, interim executive director Jacqueline Habersham has said.

See here for the background. Greg Abbott has accepted the resignation, and will appoint a new justice, who will be on the ballot in 2020 as Higley would have been. If recent patterns hold, he’ll appoint one of the Republican judges who were ousted in either 2016 or 2018. Regardless, I wish Laura Higley all the best with her health and care.

The case of Justice Laura Higley

This is a sad situation, one with potentially fraught political implications.

Justice Laura Higley

An appeals court justice serving Southeast Texas continues to sit on the bench as she suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, all while facing familial discord over the control of her $8 million estate, court records show.

Her sons launched an effort this month to become her legal guardians, alleging that Justice Laura Carter Higley, 72, is continuing with her daily routine in a manner contrary to the path of her failing cognitive health. That includes driving herself to work downtown and serving in her capacity on the First Court of Appeals based in Houston, said sons Garrett C. Higley and Robert Carter Higley.

“Due to the recent (and rapid) progression of her Alzheimer’s disease, Justice Higley’s mental state has deteriorated to the point that she is no longer able to care for her own physical health or manage her own financial affairs,” the Higley brothers said in the filing for guardianship.

Laura Carter Higley became the subject of the guardianship case in mid-October, just a week after receiving an official diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, according to documents filed in Harris County Probate Court No. 2. Her wellness issues began more than a year earlier with a diagnosis of an unspecified mild neurocognitive disorder, the sons said in their attempt to pull decisions regarding Higley’s care away from her husband, West University Place Mayor Bob Higley.

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The judge began experiencing mild neurocognitive issues as early as November 2017, according to her sons’ filing. The unspecified disorder progressed to a mild neurocognitive disorder stemming from possible Alzheimer’s disease in March, which again worsened to a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease on Oct. 9, court records show.

The justice’s name is not listed next to any decisions made on appeals cases since her diagnosis earlier this month, according to the First Court of Appeals website. But she has been involved in hundreds of decisions on civil and criminal cases since March.

Higley is one of nine justices on the court, which serves Austin, Brazoria, Chambers, Colorado, Fort Bend, Galveston, Grimes, Harris, Waller and Washington counties. The judges mostly hear appeals on cases decided in lower district and county courts in their jurisdiction.

Lillian Hardwick, a Texas attorney who wrote the “Handbook of Texas Lawyer and Judicial Ethics,” said that judges may be fearful of leaving their bench too early while facing an illness. They might enjoy the work, be hesitant to cut off retirement benefits or may not know the scope of their problem.

On the other hand, a justice might feel they’re having issues remembering certain things at home, but “by golly, she can tell you the family law code backwards and forwards,” Hardwick said. Only in the event their disability impedes the ability to perform their duties would they be violating constitutional requirements.

“They should either be retired by somebody or they should be removed,” she said. “That judge is not able to be a judge, it’s pretty simple.”

The justice’s colleagues might be in the best position to notify the commission of a potential unfitness for office, said Jonathan Smaby, the executive director at the Texas Center for Legal Ethics.

The Texas Code of Judicial Conduct requires judges to be competent and diligent, he said, although the justice might not be aware of their own lack of competence.

“It’s not always obvious to the person when they’re suffering from age-related decline,” Smaby said. “To say it’s an ethics violation makes it sound like it’s intentional.”

There’s a lot more in there about the dispute between Justice Higley’s husband and sons. I don’t want to get into that, but we have to consider the implications of Justice Higley’s health. That assumes there is an issue with her health – we have allegations but no confirmation, so we’re in the realm of speculation, which is an uncomfortable place to be. I hope she is well, and I hope that if that changes, or if any of her colleagues has reason to believe that it has changed, that they take appropriate action with the State Commission on Judicial Conduct. The people who have cases before the First Court of Appeals deserve judges who are all at the top of their game.

In the meantime, Justice Higley will be up for re-election in 2020. It is certainly possible that she will step down and allow Greg Abbott to appoint someone to her seat, so that person would run instead. Like I said, all speculation. I expect we’ll hear something more in the near future.