Judge’s comments raise questions about impartiality

Posted Wednesday, Jun. 12, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
A

Have more to add? News tip? Tell us

It’s a mythical ideal that judges are strictly impartial.

They may have preconceived notions about the law, along with well-informed viewpoints based on their experience. And they’re only human; they may form opinions about cases or develop impressions about society based on the perspective those cases provide.

But judges are entrusted with basing decisions on the facts before them and the applicable law, not their presumptions or conjectures. They’re supposed to put aside any biases that might interfere with them acting fairly.

A complaint filed against Judge Edith Jones of Texas, a 28-year veteran of the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, says she made comments that violated the code of conduct for federal judges and called into question her impartiality.

The complaint, filed by civil rights groups and legal ethicists, including several based in Texas, cites affidavits from people who attended a February speech Jones made to a Federalist Society group at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

The speech wasn’t recorded, but the complaint says Jones suggested that blacks and Hispanics commit more violent crimes than other groups; called Death Row inmate claims of mental retardation “red herrings”; and criticized U.S. Supreme Court rulings on capital punishment.

Jones also, according to the complaint, discussed several death penalty appeals in which she had written opinions, including Elroy Chester’s.

Chester was scheduled for execution Wednesday for killing Port Arthur firefighter Willie Ryman III in 1998. Chester sexually assaulted Ryman’s two nieces in their home then shot Ryman when he came to check on them.

Chester confessed to that killing — along with a string of other violent crimes. But his lawyers have argued that he shouldn’t be executed because he is mentally retarded. The Supreme Court last fall turned down that petition.

This week, Chester’s lawyers asked the 5th Circuit to name new judges to review his case because of the comments attributed to Jones. On Tuesday, the court did so (Jones dissented). But on Wednesday, Judges Eugene Davis, Edith Clement and Stephen Higginson said there was no reason to block Chester’s execution.

What’s still unresolved, though, are questions about how Texas determines which inmates are too mentally impaired for the death penalty — and how far judges can go in public comments before they undermine public confidence in the courts.

Looking for comments?

We welcome your comments on this story, but please be civil. Do not use profanity, hate speech, threats, personal abuse, images, internet links or any device to draw undue attention. Our policy requires those wishing to post here to use their real identity.

Our commenting policy | Facebook commenting FAQ | Why Facebook?