Judge to appeal conduct ruling

By Lew K. Cohn
Managing Editor

A Burnet County judge has vowed to fight a recent judicial conduct decision to publicly “admonish” him for appearing in a PEC candidate's campaign material.

Burnet County Judge James Oakley told the Burnet Bulletin Tuesday, May 7, he is looking forward to appealing the public admonition handed down by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct last month.

“I look forward to appealing this because I believe it is an overstep into what a judge is able to do, based on the definition of the canons in the Code of Judicial Conduct,” Oakley said. “A precedent has already been set and I hope it will lead to overturning the ruling by the commission.”

In a document signed April 24 by State Commission on Judicial Conduct chair Catherine Wylie, the commission ruled Oakley “lent the prestige of his judicial office to advance the private interests” of a 2018 candidate for the Pedernales Electric Cooperative board of directors. The commissions alleges his actions were a violation of Canon 2B of the Texas Code of Judicial Conduct, which states “A judge shall not lend the prestige of judicial office to advance the private interests of the judge or others.”

As a constitutional county judge, Oakley is subject to the Texas Code of Judicial Conduct, except when related to his role “in the administration of the county.” As county judge, Oakley is the top administrative official for Burnet County.

Oakley's name, title and likeness appeared on promotional materials supporting Donna Holland Wilcox's candidacy for PEC District 1 director during the 2018 board election. The commission reportedly received seven complaints that Oakley, who himself serves as PEC District 5 director, had endorsed Wilcox.

Oakley said he was notified about the complaint this year and appeared before the commission last month to plead his case before they issued the public admonishment.

Oakley told the Bulletin he has verified his endorsement would not violate Canon 5-2, which states “A judge or judicial candidate shall not authorize the public use of his or her name endorsing another candidate for any public office, except that either may indicate support for a political party.”

PEC is considered to be a member-owned, non-profit entity organized in accordance with the Texas Electric Cooperative Corporation Act. Its directors must conduct business in open session in accordance with Open Meetings regulations, but directors are not considered public officeholders, Oakley said.

“I endorsed Donna because she is a good Christian woman, wife and mother, and she is a very smart individual who has a very effective management style,” Oakley said. “I spoke with her opponent (Milton Rister) about the endorsement last year, and he was not one of those who complained.

“I know I cannot endorse anybody for public office according to the Code of Judicial Conduct and I have adhered to that.”

Oakley said he is basing his appeal of a similar case from 2006 involving current Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht, who had endorsed former White House counsel Harriet Miers' selection for the U.S. Supreme Court.

The commission publicly admonished Hecht, who appealed the commission's decision to a Special Court of Review appointed by then Texas Supreme Court Justice Wallace B. Jefferson.

The three-judge panel of Justice Kerry Fitzgerald, Justice Amos Mazzant and Justice Ann McClure overturned Hecht's admonishment and rebuked the commission, finding the Code of Judicial Conduct “decidedly deficient in … providing definitive meanings to words … such as 'private interests.'

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Find the rest of this story in the Wednesday, May 8 issue of the Burnet Bulletin, the newspaper of record for northern Burnet County. To offer a comment or news tip, email lew@highlandernews.com.


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