Denton judge removed from case for following defendant on Twitter

A visiting judge has ordered the removal of the current judge overseeing conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan’s challenge against the Texas Ethics Commission.

The commission ruled last summer that Sullivan failed to register as a lobbyist in 2010 and 2011. Sullivan is challenging that determination in court, and Judge Steve Burgess of the 158th District Court in Denton County had been presiding.

But visiting Judge Jeff Walker, formerly a state district judge in Tarrant County, ruled Tuesday that a new judge must be assigned to the case. His ruling follows the Ethics Commission’s allegations that Burgess wasn’t impartial, partly because he followed Sullivan on Twitter.

It may not be a simple switch.

Burgess had already signed one order ruling that Sullivan was allowed to claim residency in Denton County. State law allows for an Ethics Commission appeal to be filed in Travis County or the county in which the respondent lives. Sullivan announced that he was moving to Denton County a day before filing his appeal.

But Burgess left unsigned another order he drafted — this one dismissing the ruling against Sullivan on the lobbyist registration complaint.

Joe Nixon, Sullivan’s attorney, said that he considers the case dismissed and that the only step left is to issue the final written order.

“This is the first time in the state that someone has asked for a judge to step aside solely on the basis of having a Twitter account,” Nixon said in a statement late Tuesday. “I anticipate a new judge will be assigned shortly. That judge will consider the remaining details.”

Eric Nichols of Beck Redden L.L.P., the law firm working the case for the Ethics Commission, said, “The Ethics Commission looks forward to the day when the issue of Mr. Sullivan’s failure to register as a lobbyist can be adjudicated on the merits.”

Nichols added that the commission is considering whether to revisit the venue issue before the new judge.

“The commission strongly believes that venue for the case is not properly in Denton County,” Nichols said. “The case should proceed in Travis County, where it is undisputed that Sullivan resides.”