Texas judge forced to resign after caught texting instructions to assistant DA during trial


from the a-broken-system-suffers-another-set-of-fractures dept

Tim Cushing
TechDirt
October 24, 2013

"Innocent until proven guilty" has become little more than a disclaimer tacked onto cop-centered reality shows. / By Brian Turner, via Wikimedia Commons

“Innocent until proven guilty” has become little more than a disclaimer tacked onto cop-centered reality shows. / By Brian Turner, via Wikimedia Commons

Oh, the hilarity that is the phrase “criminal justice system.” Talk to any defense attorney and they’ll tell you how the deck is stacked against defendants and defense lawyers. The ideal of “innocent until proven guilty” has become little more than a disclaimer tacked onto cop-centered reality shows. Defendants are guilty until the jury is somehow tricked by the defense into handing down a “not guilty” verdict. A lot of effort goes towards dissuading defendants from even making it this far, as prosecutors will present worst-case scenarios comprised of every violation conceivable in order to get an agreement to plead guilty to a lesser charge.

The prevailing perception that the person charged is guilty, with the only answer yet to be determined is how guilty, makes defending arrestees an uphill battle. Judge (former judge) Elizabeth Coker took this uphill battle, increased the grade to 85 degrees, covered it with a sheet of ice and sprinkled it with a 50/50 blend of Teflon and motor oil.

Elizabeth E. Coker may forever be known as the “texting judge,” but her notoriety will soon be all that is left of her days on the bench of the 258th District Court of Polk, Trinity, and San Jacinto Counties. Coker signed an “AGREEMENT TO RESIGN FROM JUDICIAL OFFICE IN LIEU OF DISCIPLINARY ACTION” with the State Commission on Judicial Conduct…

The agreement comes in the wake of a recent investigation revealing Coker texted instructions from the bench to a Polk County Assistant District Attorney who was assisting in the prosecution of a case in Coker’s court.

The good news is that Coker is being stripped of all of her judicial power. Once the resignation goes through, she won’t even be able to perform a wedding. The bad news is that this texting incident was only one of several alleged incidents in which Coker undermined the justice system. [Perhaps someone should have passed her, and any prosecutors dealing with her courtroom, a copy of this letter from a Texas DA warning his staff away from ex parte discussions...]

[J]udge Coker used Assistant District Attorney Jones to privately communicate information about the Reeves case to the assistant district attorney prosecuting the case; to suggest questions for the prosecutor to ask during the trial; to ensure that a witness was able to refresh his memory and rehabilitate his testimony by reviewing his videotaped interview with law enforcement before he took the stand for the second time the following day; and to discuss legal issues pertinent to the case. in an unsuccessful effort to assist the State obtain a guilty verdict in the case…

[t]he Commission investigated claims that Judge Coker allegedly engaged in other improper ex parte communications and meetings with Jones, other members of the Polk County District Attorney’s Office, the San Jacinto County District Attorney, and certain defense attorneys regarding various Cases pending in her court; Judge Coker allegedly exhibited a bias in favor of certain attorneys and a prejudice against others in both her judicial rulings and her court appointments: 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…

Add to all the alleged misconduct above the apparent fact that she kept using the same questionable tactics right up to her appearance before the Commission.

[t]he Commission also expressed concerns that Judge Coker discussed the Commission’s investigation and Judge Coker’s written responses to the investigation with a material witness prior to that witness’ testimony before the Commission in an apparent attempt to influence that witness, and that the judge may not have been candid and truthful in her testimony before the Commission when questioned about her contact with the witness…

In addition to stripping her judicial powers, the Commission also leaves her solely responsible for bearing the cost of any litigation arising from her alleged misconduct. The Commission, however, chose not to pursue these allegations in exchange for her immediate resignation. Coker utilizes that out in her public statement.

“The Judicial Commission made no finding or determinations of fact in my voluntary resignation, and I have not admitted guilt, fault or liability in my voluntary resignation. While I could have fought these allegations, it would have involved significant time, significant expense, and disruption to everyone involved. I did not feel that was in the best interests of the taxpayers, our court system, my family or myself” Coker stated.

Yeah, that sounds about right. Coker sacrificing herself for the good of a long list of others, including the taxpayers who paid her salary and the court system she allegedly abused from a position of power. Thanks to the commission’s decision, these will forever remain allegations — the equivalent of “getting off on a technicality.” If Coker ends up in court because of her previous improprieties, I would imagine she’ll have to search well outside her district for a defense lawyer.

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