LISHERON: Judicial panel can keep its secrets

By   /   December 11, 2012  /   No Comments

By Mark Lisheron | Texas Watchdog

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SECRECY: A state panel that polices judges can keep its records secret, the Texas attorney general says.

AUSTIN — It is at great personal risk that Texas Watchdog discloses that Attorney General Greg Abbott agrees that Texas law allows the State Commission on Judicial Conduct to operate in utter secrecy.

Imagine our surprise when doing a search that instead of finding a blank page the commission has a website with just enough words on it to prove the agency exists.

Having failed to turn into a pillar of pink granite we can conclude that at least for now it is safe to continue on typing the name State Commission on Judicial Conduct. Just don’t say the name aloud while reading this story.

You see, many of us were under the impression the commission was a public body much like any other, subject to laws governing the disclosure of its operations and to regular review by the state’s Sunset Advisory Commission.

How wrong we all were. The Commission on Judicial Conduct, claiming the law afforded them a blanket confidentiality almost unheard of in state government, refused in March to turn over any documents related to its reviews of judges and the judicial process in Texas.

Commission meetings are off limits to the public. State auditors were denied the documents. Low-level government employees were urged to look away from the secret papers when they were removed from a golden winged ark that had been buried for thousands of years.

(We admit to having gotten carried away with a Raiders of the Lost Ark metaphor here.)

The Sunset Commission threw up its hands at the time, saying a review was impossible, and asked for an opinion of the attorney general.

Understanding judges needed some buffer from political pressure and disgruntled plaintiffs, the commission wrote, the public ought to be able to see for itself whether judicial conduct was adequately scrutinized.

The public, with a little help from the Legislature, made sure that wasn’t going to happen by approving the addition of Section 1-a to Article 5 of the Texas Constitution in 1965.

Under that section all commission proceedings are confidential, Abbott said in an opinion he issued last week. Only an exception signed into law by the Legislature could circumvent the confidentiality protections.

In a wholly unexpected move, Seana Willing, executive director for the commission, declined to discuss Abbott’s ruling with the Austin American-Statesman. Nor were reporters allowed to gaze upon Willing’s face.

We were kidding about that last one. We think.

Contact Mark Lisheron at mark@texaswatchdog.org or 512-299-2318 or on Twitter at @marktxwatchdog.

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