Harsh penalty unlikely for Texas judge who gave jury advice from God


Highlights

Media coverage surrounding the incident is sufficient grounds to launch an investigation.

The last time a judge was removed without resigning was 2004.

Despite complaints against a state District Court judge who said a visit from God led him to intervene in jury deliberations, court watchers predict only minor punishment, if any, will be handed down by the state agency tasked with prosecuting judicial misconduct.

The legal observers say Judge Jack Robison’s behavior at a recent sex trafficking trial in Comal County violates the code of ethics that requires jurists to maintain impartiality and is grounds for a review from the State Commission on Judicial Conduct. Robison, who has not returned calls for comment, twice interrupted deliberations on Jan. 12 to tell jurors he thought the defendant was not guilty.

He acknowledged what he did was improper but said he was at peace with it because he was directed by God to deliver the message, according to defense lawyer Sylvia Cavazos and members of the jury who have been interviewed by the media.

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Unmoved by the judge’s assessment of the case, the jury returned a guilty verdict and later sentenced the woman to 25 years in prison, the minimum punishment for the first-degree felony.

Robison had previously denied Cavazos’ motion for a directed verdict of not guilty, which if granted would have acquitted the defendant without the jury’s input.

Robison removed himself during the trial’s sentencing phase and was replaced by another judge.

The State Commission on Judicial Conduct is tasked with judging judges and deciding any disciplinary action. Media coverage surrounding the incident is sufficient grounds to launch an investigation, as is the complaint a juror told the San Antonio Express-News that he filed with the commission.

The commission’s executive director, Eric Vinson, said he could not confirm or deny that Robison is the subject of an investigation.

In cases involving the most serious allegations, the commission has in the past filed formal charges that can result in removal of the judge or involuntary retirement. But such severe actions are uncommon. Reprimands or orders requiring judges to get training are more commonly imposed penalties.

No judge has been forcibly removed from office since 2004.

In recent years, judges have resigned before being forced out. One judge resigned after an investigation in 2017, four did so in 2016 and seven resigned after investigations in 2015.

Retired Travis County state District Judge Jon Wisser said it’s unlikely Robison will be forced out.

“But I’m not sure,” he said. “I think it’s certainly a possibility of removal. I don’t know if it’s a probability. I suspect they’re going to take it very seriously.”

‘Judges policing themselves’

Judges who resign in lieu of dismissal are forever disqualified from returning to the bench. Resignation agreements are made public on the commission’s website.

But Houston attorney Robert Fickman said the commission is notorious for going easy on judges. In a 2012 interview with the American-Statesman, Fickman, a past president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association, called the commission “a fraud on the good citizens of the state.”

“My opinion pretty much remains the same,” Fickman said this week. “I don’t have a lot of faith that the commission will give serious sanctions to members of the judiciary that violate the canons.”

He’s particularly miffed over the four hours of training imposed against three Harris County criminal law hearing officers for violating a federal court ruling when they failed to release indigent defendants from jail without bail.

Fickman says the punishment was lighter than a speeding ticket.

“Four hours? That’s half of a defensive driving course,” Fickman said.

In 2017, the commission received 1,535 complaints and resolved 1,333, some of which carried over from previous years. Of the resolved cases, 708 were dismissed with little or no investigation. The remaining 625 triggered an investigation.

Local civil rights activist Jim Harrington said the commission is inherently flawed because judges are tasked with ruling over their peers.

Harrington in 2011 filed a complaint against Robison for improperly jailing a grandfather who had approached the judge in the courthouse bathroom and called him a fool after a ruling Robison made in a child custody case involving the man’s granddaughter.

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The grandfather was jailed without a hearing, which Harrington said is “worse than the God thing he did, which is crazy.”

The commission declined to file formal charges and issued Robison a private reprimand.

“Anybody that polices themselves is going to have this result,” Harrington said. “Judges policing themselves is absurd. … He shouldn’t be on the bench right now. They should have kicked him off the last time.”

But criticism of a state’s judicial conduct commission is common, according to Cynthia Gray, director of Center for Judicial Ethics of the National Center for State Courts.

“In every state, people think the commission is too easy and judges think the commission is too hard,” she said.

Robison still on the job

Robison has remained silent as news of his advice to the jury received national attention. He did not return calls for comment left in the last few days with his court coordinator, Steve Thomas, or his campaign treasurer, William Mehrer, who also did not return calls or emails.

Robison, who presides over a district that includes Comal, Caldwell and Hays counties, was scheduled to be on the bench this week in Caldwell and Hays, but cases that were set for trial were resolved ahead of time. He’ll return next week, Thomas said.

If he does not draw an opponent in the November election — no one has filed to run against him in the Republican or Democratic primaries — Robison could remain on the bench through 2022.

The judicial commission’s membership, as mandated by the state constitution, includes six judges appointed by the Supreme Court of Texas, two attorneys appointed by the State Bar, and five citizen members appointed by the governor. They serve six-year terms and are not paid. Seven appellate judges are appointed to hear the most serious cases that could result in dismissal.

Should the commission decide to act against a judge, charges cannot be filed until four weeks after the filing of a complaint. Robison disrupted jury deliberations two weeks ago.

Gray, of the national judicial ethics center, declined to comment on Robison’s case but said additional considerations will factor into the commission’s punishment decision, including “if there’s a pattern, whether the judge shows remorse, or whether there’s something that isn’t revealed in the newspaper stories.”

The commission has ongoing cases against two judges, Zavala County Justice of the Peace Lucy Leal and Harris County Justice of the Peace Hilary H. Green.

Green is accused of refusing to recuse herself from the case of a defendant who did work on her house and also faces allegations brought up in her divorce that she abused prescription pills. Leal is charged with approving unlawful arrest warrants against a man who had repossessed another judge’s truck.

The commission does not publicize a complaint unless the complaint turns into formal charges or results in punishment.

“Everything is confidential unless and until they take public action that allows the door to open,” Vinson said.

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