There’s a certain esteem associated with robe-wearing, gavel-wielding folk. Judges are often thought to be the most fair, just, and moral among us, the ones we turn to when we need to make important decisions about truth and justice, even life and death. But judges sometimes behave badly. Need proof? Let’s weigh the evidence from the past few weeks in Texas.
In Harris County, a trio of magistrate judges landed in hot water after they were caught on video being flat-out mean to people charged with minor non-violent offenses. The Houston Press first reported these judges’ courtroom behavior last month after obtaining and reviewing tape capturing some seriously disturbing interactions with defendants who are often simply too poor to pay fines for small traffic violations and end up stuck in jail because of it. Magistrate Joe Licata responded to a woman’s concerns about being trapped in an arrest-and-incarceration cycle for unpaid traffic fines by telling her that her troubles meant nothing to him but “job security.” Another magistrate judge, Eric Hagstette, doubled a woman’s bond to $2,000 just because she kept saying “yeah” instead of “yes.” And a third magistrate judge, Jill Wallace, set bail at $5,000 for a man who had a documented history of mental illness and homelessness. Writes the Press:
Saying she was denying him a pretrial release bond, Wallace then asked whether he wanted a court-appointed lawyer. “Who, me?” he answered. “Yeah, you.” When the man simply answered by giving Wallace his name and could not answer her question, Wallace shooed him away with the deputies.
Licata, Hagstette, and Wallace are now the subject of a judicial misconduct complaint filed by Houston state Senator John Whitmire, according to the Press. Whitmire also asked the State Commission on Judicial Conduct to bar the judges from holding court until any misconduct investigation is completed. “Texas governing statutes clearly state that a magistrate should exercise their full discretion when conducting probable cause hearings and setting bond amounts,” Whitmire said in a statement, according to the Press. “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.”
Meanwhile, in San Antonio, a federal immigration judge made national headlines after going on a long rant about President-elect Donald Trump during a naturalization ceremony meant to welcome hundreds of new citizens last month. “I can assure you that whether you voted for him or you did not vote for him, if you are a citizen of the United States, he is your president,” Judge John Primomo said during the ceremony at the Institute of Texan Cultures, according to KENS-5. “He will be your president and if you do not like that, you need to go to another country.” He went on to rail against those who took the streets to protest Trump’s election victory, and even singled out NFL athletes who have been kneeling during the national anthem to protest racial injustice. “I detest that, because you can protest things that happen in this country; you have every right to,” Primomo said. “You don’t do that by offending national symbols like the national anthem and the flag of the United States.”
After his speech went viral, Primomo responded to the backlash by claiming that his words were taken out of context. “I would never say anything like that,” Primomo told the San Antonio Express-News. “I wasn’t trying to say anything for or against Donald Trump. I was just trying to say something hopeful and unifying and unfortunately it was taken out of context.” But it was too little, too late for Primomo. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund filed a complaint about the speech, and Primomo’s bosses at the federal courthouse in San Antonio issued a statement saying that Primomo “will no longer be handling citizenship ceremonies, and the judges are meeting with him to see how this matter can be resolved and concluded.” The next day, Primomo announced his retirement effective in September, after he turns 65.
In Central Texas, Burnet County Judge James Oakley didn’t resign, but he did make a public apology after seemingly suggesting on Facebook last month that a black murder suspect be lynched. According to the Austin American-Statesman, Oakley, the top elected official in Burnet County, shared a mugshot of Otis McKane, the man charged with murdering a San Antonio police detective. Oakley commented on the post: “Time for a tree and a rope.” McKane is African-American. Oakley quickly deleted the comment and apologized for “for not being more thoughtful and comprehensive in my expression.”
“What I should have posted, if anything, is a comment that more clearly reflects my opinion on the cowardly crime of the senseless murder of a law enforcement officer,” Oakley told the Statesman, adding that his opinion of McKane “is the same regardless of ethnicity.”
Then there is this bizarre story out of El Paso, where one judge has accused another judge of giving him the middle finger in the County Courthouse parking lot. Last week, the El Paso Times reported that County Court at Law No. 1 Judge Ricardo Herrera filed a report with the sheriff’s office alleging disorderly conduct by 384th District Court Judge Patrick Garcia following a confrontation early in November. Neither judge commented on the situation, so the details are still a little unclear. But this is what the Times was able to gather from the incident report:
Herrera told sheriff deputies that at about noon on Nov. 8, Garcia walked up to him and extended his hand toward him in a “hand shaking motion,” the report states. Garcia then allegedly told Herrera, “Hey, I want to thank you for busting a rec for the 384th.” The term “rec” refers to a plea-agreement recommendation made by state prosecutors or defense lawyers. Herrera told deputies that he “almost simultaneously” extended his hand to shake Garcia’s hand and responded by saying, “You got it,” the report states. The two judges then shook hands. Garcia then allegedly released his “grasp and started waving his middle finger directly in front of his (Herrera) face while yelling ‘here’ ‘here,’ ” according to the report. Herrera claimed that Garcia’s middle finger was about 4 or 5 inches away from his face. He added that he then realized that Garcia was upset at him, but he was “clueless on the reason why,” the report states. Garcia then allegedly turned away from Herrera and walked off.
Just another day in the life of a Texas judge!