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Elizabeth Coker

Another slap on the wrist for a prosecutor behaving badly

Weak. Very weak.

The Texas Bar Association has issued a public reprimand to state district Judge Kaycee Jones for her role in clandestine texting during a criminal trial while she was a prosecutor and before her election to the bench last year.

Jones, who oversees the 411th court in Polk, Trinity and San Jacinto counties, signed the agreed judgement citing her for “professional misconduct” just before she came in front of the bar’s grievance panel for a hearing this month.

Jones, 39, was an assistant Polk County prosecutor for 11 years before becoming a judge in 2013. She could not be reached for comment.

However, in a letter to the bar’s disciplinary counsel several months ago, Jones confessed to being an accomplice in a texting incident that she stated she knew was wrong, writing: “I deeply regret that I acted in this manner.”

The agreed judgment documented how Jones had received text messages from state district Judge Elizabeth Coker, while she was seated on the bench during a trial in a child injury case.

Jones, then an assistant prosecutor and observer during the trial, wrote down the message that suggested a line of questioning to bolster the prosecution’s case and relayed it to the lead prosecutor.

[…]

However, several whistle blowers in the investigation, including attorneys Cecil Berg and Richard Burroughs, said the state bar was far too lenient on Jones.

“I’m totally stunned and in disbelief,” said Burroughs of Cleveland. “I served on the state bar’s grievance committee for eight years and would have expected Jones to be suspended or disbarred when she has confessed to violating someone’s civil rights.”

He said Jones has since refused to recuse herself from overseeing his cases that come into her court and feels she is retaliating against him.

He and Berg wanted the state bar to expand its investigation to include multiple other “ex parte” texts between Jones and Coker involving other defendants which were given to the state judicial commission for review.

“We want to find a way to have the bar association look at them still,” Burroughs said.

See here and here for the background. I suppose the State Commission on Judicial Conduct can weigh in as well, since Jones is now a judge, but since all they did with her partner in crime Coker was make her resign, I don’t expect much. I still think a suspension of one year is the bare acceptable minimum punishment for what these two unethical idiots did, and disbarment would not have been too harsh. Why bother to behave if there are no consequences for breaking the rules? Grits has more.

Consequences are for suckers

They’re not for former judge Elizabeth Coker, thank you very much.

Elizabeth Coker

State District Judge Elizabeth E. Coker, who presided over Trinity, Polk and San Jacinto counties before resigning Dec. 6 under fire in a texting controversy, filed Monday to run for Polk County district attorney next year.

Coker will be challenging the incumbent prosecutor, Lee Hon, who was among the witnesses who testified about Coker this year before the State Commission on Judicial Conduct.

Coker was accused of unethical bias during court proceedings, including sending as many as 40 text messages from the bench to prosecutors, tampering with witnesses and slipping into a jury room to tell those deliberating how to vote.

She admitted no guilt and the commission stopped short of issuing any findings of misconduct.

In October, Coker, who served 14 years on the 258th East Texas bench, agreed to voluntarily resign. As part of a signed agreement with the commission, Coker is disqualified from sitting or serving as a judge in Texas and cannot even officiate at weddings.

But the order does not specifically ban her from other public offices, like district attorney, said commission spokesperson Seana Willing.

“The most the commission can do is remove someone from the bench,” she said.

Local attorney Laura Prigmore is mulling over whether to ask the courts if a prosecutor can be considered a “judicial” position since it is listed under the judicial branch in the Texas Constitution.

[…]

Republican chairman Lowell Crew said expects an “interesting match up” between Hon and Coker in the March Republican primary, but said he could not predict the outcome.

Prigmore, the attorney who wants a higher court to investigate Coker’s eligibility to run for district attorney, said in past elections that “Coker’s power was amazing.”

“She had a machine. But I’m not so sure it will still hold together now,” said Prigmore.

Cecil Berg, an attorney who filed complaints against Coker and who is running to replace her as district judge, described Coker’s campaign as “the most brazen thing I’ve ever seen.”

“I’m dismayed by it,” he said. “After all the improper communiqu├ęs she’s had with assistant district attorneys while a judge, now she wants to run the department. It’s beyond my comprehension.”

See here, here, and here for some background. Note that the prosecutor Coker was texting is now a judge herself, though she has a hearing with the Judicial Conduct commission pending. As I said before, I thought this punishment was too light. I’d have advocated for disbarment, though I’d have settled for a suspension of her law license for at least a year. Given that there was no stronger remedy available, I’m not at all surprised she chose to run for office again. No one has laid a glove on Elizabeth Coker yet. I saw no mention of a Democratic candidate in this race, not that it likely would have mattered, so it’s up to the GOP primary voters in these counties to decide if they’re the suckers here. Grits has more.

From the “Judges Behaving Badly” files

We’ll start with now-former Judge Elizabeth Coker:

An East Texas state district judge who had been accused of sending text messages to coach a prosecutor during a trial, being biased against some attorneys and improperly meeting with jurors has resigned as part of an agreement with a state judicial commission.

Elizabeth E. Coker did not admit to guilt or fault as part of her agreement with the State Commission on Judicial Conduct. The commission announced Monday that Coker had taken an immediate leave of absence and her resignation will take effect Dec. 6. The agreement also prevents her from ever being a judge again in Texas.

Coker had been a judge since 1998. She oversaw proceedings in Polk, San Jacinto and Trinity counties. Her father and grandfather had also been judges who presided over the same counties.

[…]

The commission said that during an August 2012 child abuse trial Coker presided over, the judge sent text messages to Polk County prosecutor Kaycee Jones, suggesting questions that Jones should relay to the prosecutor handling the case.

Coker was also accused of suggesting that a witness review a videotaped interview he gave to law enforcement to refresh his memory and rehabilitate his testimony and of discussing legal issues pertinent to the case “in an unsuccessful effort to assist the State (to) obtain a guilty verdict in the case.”

The defendant ended up being acquitted of a felony charge of injury to a child.

The commission also alleged Coker might have engaged in other improper communications and meetings with Jones and other prosecutors in Polk and San Jacinto counties and certain defense attorneys regarding pending cases in her courtroom.

“Judge Coker allegedly exhibited a bias in favor or certain attorneys and a prejudice against others in both her judicial rulings and her court appointment; and Judge Coker allegedly met with jurors in an inappropriate manner, outside the presence of counsel, while the jurors were deliberating in one or more criminal trials,” the commission said.

In addition, the commission alleged Coker “may not have been candid and truthful” in testimony before the panel about whether she tried to influence the testimony of a witness who spoke to the commission.

That’s quite the sorry litany of bad judicial behavior. About the only thing I can think of that she could have done to make it worse would have been to bet on the outcome of the cases before her. Personally, I think she got off too lightly – I think disbarment would have been a fitting punishment. But at least she’ll never don the robes again.

The prosecutor Coker texted is now herself a judge, and is facing her own inquiry for her role in that incident.

While the state judicial commission’s investigation into alleged improprieties by State District Judge Elizabeth Coker ended Monday with her resignation, the focus may now shift to any possible complicity by fellow judge and former prosecutor, Kaycee Jones.

Coker’s voluntary agreement to resign alludes to complaints that she “engaged in improper ex parte text communications with Jones,” who served as a Polk County assistant district attorney for 10 years until this year becoming the 411th state district judge.

On Tuesday, Jones could not be reached for comment. But in a previously written letter to the Texas Bar Association’s disciplinary counsel, Jones said that during her tenure as prosecutor she improperly utilized clandestine text messages sent from the bench by Coker.

Jones acknowledged passing along the texts, designed to bolster the prosecution’s case, to the lead prosecutor during a child abuse trial. “It was wrong and I knew better,” she wrote.

Jones’ name was prominently mentioned three times in Coker’s resignation agreement. The signed document refers to the so-called “texting and judging” incident as well as allegations of other improper communiques and meetings between Jones and Coker involving additional cases that were not specified.

Apparently, her boss at the time in the DA’s office made her promise to never do it again, but that ain’t good enough. Jones’ formal hearing is in March, but honestly, unless she has something better to say for herself, she should just save us all the time and trouble and submit her resignation. I don’t see how she can be trusted as a judge given her appallingly bad judgment.

Those two are known to be bad apples. Here in Harris County, we have an accusation of bad behavior against a Family Court judge.

State District Court Judge Denise Pratt is under investigation, accused of backdating court records to make it appear that she issued rulings and filed court documents sooner than she actually did, according to county officials.

Allegations against the 311th family court judge, raised by a Houston-area family lawyer in a criminal complaint filed with the Harris County District Attorney’s Office and the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, already have led to the resignation of Pratt’s court clerk.

Webster-based family lawyer Greg Enos, whose criminal complaint last year against a Galveston County court-at-law judge sparked an investigation by the state attorney general and multiple indictments that led to the judge’s suspension and subsequent resignation, said he delivered his complaint against Pratt to First Assistant District Attorney Belinda Hill on Monday. Enos said he believes the office has already launched an investigation.

A spokesman for the district attorney’s office said he “can’t confirm or deny” whether any investigation is underway, but county and other sources say the office is looking into it and already has contacted attorneys to arrange interviews.

The concerns Enos is raising also have touched off an investigation by the Harris County District Clerk, the official keeper of all court records.

District Clerk Chris Daniel said he looked into two of the six cases Enos included in his complaint, which led to the resignation on Monday of Pratt’s lead clerk, a well-liked, 25-year employee of the District Clerk’s office.

Daniel said he found records were postdated or mis-marked in those two cases, and that he is looking into a seventh one that another family lawyer brought to his attention.

An inaccurate timestamp or missing signature on a court document not only erodes “the integrity of the record,” Daniel said, but can have an impact on appeals and other legal processes.

“If you have the wrong date on a document, then statutorily you can run out of time to appeal a case, and that’s where the most damage is,” he said.

[…]

Several lawyers involved in the cases Enos cites in his complaint said they never have experienced such problems with a judge.

Marcia Zimmerman, a 30-year veteran family lawyer based in Clear Lake, said she resorted to filing a motion after waiting for months on a ruling from Pratt. When the ruling finally came in, she was surprised to see the date listed was months before she had filed her motion.

“I don’t think any of us believed the ruling was actually made before the petition for writ of mandamus because, why would she rule and not tell anybody?” Zimmerman said, noting that Pratt also missed two scheduled hearings.

Family lawyer Robert Clark said he had a similar experience, arguing a case in January and then waiting five months for a ruling from Pratt that the official court record now says was issued on Jan. 30, the day before the two-day trial actually ended.

“The thing is, it’s had a seriously adverse affect on the child in this case and my client,” Clark said. “This is just egregious.”

The DA’s office doesn’t comment on these matters so we don’t know for sure what’s going on with Judge Pratt, but the main charges against her are serious and could lead to a felony arrest if there’s sufficient evidence to bear them out. As things stand now, she would be up for re-election in 2014, though as was the case with our old buddy Chuck Rosenthal, whose name was dropped at the end of the story, she might come under pressure from the local GOP to not file. The filing deadline in December 9, and I daresay that regardless of what is being said officially about her case, we’ll have a pretty good idea of whether or not she’s in real trouble by then.