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Joseph Licata

Paxton wants magistrates’ lawsuit tossed

We all want things, Kenny.

Best mugshot ever

The state attorney general Monday asked a judge to dismiss a lawsuit by three Harris County hearing officers who are fighting sanctions by Texas’ judicial ethics commission earlier this year over unfair bail practices.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton also asked that the case brought by three admonished magistrates be transferred from Harris County, where the judges sit, to Travis County, where the State Commission on Judicial Conduct is based. Paxton also asserts that the state watchdog agency has “sovereign immunity” from being sued.

The lawsuit, filed in May by three local magistrates, challenges the commission’s finding that they violated the state code of conduct for judges during probable cause hearings for newly arrested defendants. The hearing officers, Eric Hagstette, Jill Wallace and Joseph Licata III, initially challenged the commission’s findings through a more straightforward appeal to the state’s Special Court of Review. However, they later withdrew that appeal and sued the commission to have their records be cleared of the findings of misconduct.

Mike Stafford, who is representing the magistrates free of charge in this lawsuit, said the sanctions should be eliminated because the watchdog commission surpassed its authority in telling magistrates they can’t refer bond matters to the judges assigned to the cases.

“This case presents an important and rare opportunity to affirm that the Commission may not interpret Texas law and to ensure that the Commission is not allowed to exceed its mandate,” Stafford argued in district court filings.

See here for the background. I presume the reason to ask for a transfer as well as a dismissal is that if you don’t get the one you might at least get the other. Beyond that, I have no particular insights so I’ll just note this for the record and move on.

Harris County hearing officers sue to overturn their conduct sanction

An interesting twist.

Three Harris County hearing officers have sued the State Commission on Judicial Conduct in an attempt to overturn their discipline for denying personal recognizance bonds to misdemeanor defendants, contending that the agency overstepped its authority by interpreting law in meting out punishment.

Eric Hagstette, Joseph Licata III and Jill Wallace are Harris County criminal law hearing officers who assist elected state district judges with initial criminal court hearings that advise criminal defendants of their rights, set money bail and determine whether the accused are eligible for release on a personal bond.

All three of the hearing officers were issued public admonitions by the Judicial Conduct Commission in January after it found that they failed to comply with the law in strictly following directives from state district judges to refrain from issuing personal bonds to defendants.

[…]

The commission noted that it gave weight to the hearing officers’ arguments that they feared for their jobs if they didn’t obey orders from state district judges to deny personal bonds to defendants. Nevertheless, the commission determined the hearing officers had violated their constitutional and statutory obligations to consider all legally available bonds when they denied personal recognizance bonds to defendants.

In a recent petition filed in a Harris County state district court, the hearing officers argue that the commission exceeded its mandate in issuing the disciplinary actions based on its own interpretation of the law, rather than on well-settled law.

“All courts to have considered this question have agreed: The commission is not permitted to interpret the law and then find a violation. Yet that is precisely what the commission has done here,” the hearing officers’ petition alleges. “It has been nearly thirty years since the commission’s authority has been examined in Texas; this case presents an important and rare opportunity to reaffirm that the commission may not interpret Texas law and to ensure that the Commission is not allowed to exceed its mandate.”

Sen. John Whitmire filed the complaint that led to the State Commission on Judicial Conduct disciplining the hearing officers. I didn’t note when that decision was handed down, but a month after that we had testimony that the misdemeanor court judges violated state judicial conduct rules themselves by ordering the magistrates to deny bail. If this action were about setting that record straight I’d be firmly in the corner of the magistrates, but this looks to be about the role of the Commission, which interests me a lot less. Nonetheless, I suspect there’s some potential for more dirty laundry to be aired, and I am here for that.

Whitmire files complaint against bail-denying magistrates

Good.

Sen. John Whitmire

Sen. John Whitmire

An influential Texas lawmaker on Thursday filed formal complaints against three Harris County magistrate judges after they were captured on videotape rushing misdemeanor defendants to jail without considering no-cost bonds.

State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, filed the complaints with the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, citing an article published Thursday in the Houston Chronicle about the hearings and videos.

He complaints were lodged against Magistrates Eric Hagstette, Joseph Licata III and Jill Wallace. The hearing officers could not be reached immediately for comment.

Whitmire said he named the magistrates specifically in his complaint because of “obvious failures” to conduct hearings as required by statute.

“The total disregard for citizens and the complete lack of judicial temperament and professionalism are unacceptable,” Whitmire told the Chronicle. “I am requesting a thorough investigation by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct to determine if these violations are intentional, individual, or the responsibility of the elected judges who appoint these magistrates,” Whitmire said.

“Texas governing statutes clearly state that a magistrate should exercise their full discretion when conducting probable cause hearings and setting bond amounts,” Whitmire said. “It is clear from the video of their hearings that this is clearly not the case with these magistrates. It appears the probable cause hearings in Harris County not only violate the intent of these statutes, but also the letter of the law.”

See here for the background, and here for Sen. Whitmire’s press release. What we saw on those videos was a disgrace and a mockery of justice. I hope the State Commission on Judicial Conduct takes this seriously. Grits and the Press have more.