JP publicly sanctioned for offering deal to political foe

Jacquelyn Wright is the Tarrant County Precinct 4 Justice of the Peace.
Jacquelyn Wright is the Tarrant County Precinct 4 Justice of the Peace. Courtesy photo

Justice of the Peace Jacquelyn Wright received a public warning from the State Commission on Judicial Conduct after offering an opponent a favor on a court case if she dropped efforts to kick Wright’s name off the Republican Party primary ballot last year.

The commission ruled Wright failed to comply with the law and was involved in activity that cast doubt on her ability to be impartial when she offered in an email to make sure that her opponent Vickie Phillips’ “brushes with the law are not an issue, ever.”

Wright also was sanctioned for writing a Facebook posting on the day of the March 2014 primary that directed an obscene word and gesture at Phillips that “constituted willful conduct that cast public discredit on the judiciary.”

“The commission concludes .... that Judge Wright failed to comply with the law and engaged in extra-judicial conduct that cast reasonable doubt on her capacity to act impartially as a judge,” according to the warning issued Sept 22 and published in the Texas Bar Journal this month.

But Wright this week claims she did nothing wrong. While she completed three hours of mentoring with another judge as ordered last month, she plans to petition the commission for a reversal. She has served as a justice of the peace since 1991.

“My position then and now is that I did nothing wrong, and did not agree with their findings,” Wright said in an email to the Star-Telegram. “I take my role as judge very seriously. ... For now, any further comments would be inappropriate.”

Wright didn’t initially fight the commission’s ruling because she said it was too costly. Wright makes about $118,000 a year as a justice of the peace.

Seana Willing, executive director of the commission, declined to comment on the case except to say that Wright accepted the sanction. The commission’s ruling mentions that Wright communicated with the agency in writing and that she declined to confirm or dispute the email.

The commission felt strongly enough about Wright’s actions to subject her to a public rebuke. The commission can issue an admonition, warning or reprimand to a judge, both privately and publicly. In this instance, the commission chose to issue Wright an intermediate public warning.

Wright had at least two chances to appeal the sanctions while they were under consideration and there is no appellate remedy available to her, Willing said.

“She agreed to it and she went through the mentoring and training so we’ll leave it up to her to figure out how she is going to challenge it at this point,” Willing said.

Social media furor

The case against Wright stems from a complaint filed in 2013 by Phillips that challenged Wright’s ballot petitions. Phillips, a real estate agent making her first bid for public office, said some of Wright’s petitions failed to state which office the judge was seeking, as required by law.

Later, Tarrant County Republican Party Chairwoman Jennifer Hall independently discovered that the incumbent judge only had 242 valid signatures, eight short of what was needed to get on the ballot. She told Wright she was not eligible to be on the ballot.

Wright filed a lawsuit seeking to keep her name on the ballot, and eventually a judge ordered that Wright be allowed to submit additional signatures, saying she was not told of the deficiencies until after a crucial deadline. Wright brushed off the other complaint as a clerical error.

In the meantime, and before the case was settled out of court at the end of December, Wright reached out to Hall in an Dec. 13, 2013, email outlining a resolution of the ballot challenge she thought would profit everyone.

Wright said she needed to serve until January 2015 to qualify for retirement. The judge suggested to Hall that Phillips withdraw her complaint, they proceed with the election and that she would later endorse Phillips’ appointment for her unfulfilled term and in any future elections.

Wright also suggested that she was aware of cases against Phillips in her court by saying “I will make sure that her brushes with the law are not an issue, ever.”

“There is a win/win solution for the party, Ms. Phillips and myself,” Wright wrote in the December 2013 email to Hall. “The party suffers not.”

Hall never passed the offer onto Phillips, but instead reported it to the Secretary of State, along with a complaint explaining the background. Those documents eventually ended up on a Facebook page, where someone accused Wright of “bribery and coercion.”

But the social media furor didn’t end there. On the night of the primary, Wright on Facebook thanked God for putting her ahead in the early returns and then gave Phillips what she called the Italian wish of “bafongoo,” which is accompanied by a “flick of the wrist under the chin.”

An Internet search shows Wright misspelled the word but that it has a sexual connotation. Wright told the commission later the word is meaningless and that the gesture meant to “go jump back in the mud,” a reference to Phillips’ campaign tactics.

Ready for rematch?

Willing couldn’t say if the email or the Facebook posting actually spurred the investigation. The commission’s order against Wright also mentions that the judge was worried about negative coverage by the Fort Worth Weekly of Wright’s time while in office.

Phillips said she filed a complaint over the obscene Facebook posting. Phillips added that she was aware of the email sent to the GOP chairwoman about the proposed quid pro quo.

Phillips also said that she has never had any charges against her, but that her husband had a case against a neighbor who assaulted him. The case was eventually moved to another court and resolved long before the March 2014 primary, Phillips and the commission warning states.

“I have no clue what she is talking about. I’ve not even had a speeding ticket in the last 25 years,” Phillips said.

Phillips said she never expected to hear any more about the 2014 campaign.

“I wanted to run a fair race and I couldn’t believe a sitting judge would go behind the voters’ backs just to receive her retirement,” Phillips said. “I just can’t believe Judge Wright’s conduct.”

While she only got about 30 percent of the vote in her first race against Wright, she plans on running again.

Which means the race in 2018 could be a rematch, since Wright said she plans to run again. Wright’s Precinct 4 covers much of Northwest Tarrant County.

“I love my job. I have no plans to retire, and yes I plan to be up for re-election in 2018,” she said.

This story contains material from the Star-Telegram archives.

Max B. Baker: 817-390-7714, @MaxbakerBB

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