Have you been in Harris County Criminal Court at Law #2 lately? If so, you may have noticed the long present and blatantly offensive M.A.D.D. plaque is now absent, thanks to a reprimand from the State Commission on Judicial Conduct following a complaint by HCCLA.
For years, Judge William “Bill” Harmon arrogantly and inappropriately displayed his Mother’s Against Drunk Driving award on the bench in County Court #2. Despite requests from HCCLA and lawyers that it be removed, especially during DWI trials, Judge Harmon persisted in its display. During at least one trial, the potential jurors seated in the gallery responded they could see and read the M.A.D.D. plaque; they knew the meaning of the acronym so prominently displayed on the plaque; they even found its display ironic and uncomfortable. The display represented exactly what judges are supposed to avoid – an appearance of bias or impropriety.
One of the most basic canons judges must follow is to remain impartial and avoid even an appearance of impropriety. This is why the display was offensive. This is why HCCLA was compelled to take action and file a formal complaint with the State Commission on Judicial Conduct when Judge Harmon refused to remove the display. The direct result of our complaint was a private reprimand against Judge Harmon for this behavior.
For a judge who routinely hears DWI cases to display a perceived alliance with M.A.D.D. is beyond an appearance of bias. It very plainly shows a bias or prejudice against those who come before the court. Imagine being charged with DWI and walking into court to see that Mothers Against Drunk Drivers has honored the judge for his assistance in their plight. Would you trust that judge to be fair in your case? No, you wouldn’t. Does that bias instill a public trust in the judicial office? Of course not.
This inappropriate display finally came to an end with a private reprimand from the State Commission on Judicial Conduct. The Commission is a state agency created under the Texas Constitution responsible for investigating allegations of misconduct and for disciplining judges who run afoul of the judicial canons that govern their conduct.
Following a request for the plaques removal, several court opinions, and finally an HCCLA complaint to the Commission, Judge Harmon has finally removed the offending display. One would have thought the suggestion that perhaps Judge Harmon would “do the right thing” following a recusal hearing would have received his attention. One would have thought the remarks of Judge Sharp, First Court of Appeals, expressing that the sanctuary of a public courtroom should be free from special interests groups and agendas would have mattered. One would have thought a Court of Criminal Appeals opinion condemning this display would have caused Judge Harmon to take note. But alas, Judge Harmon continued his offensive display of perceived bias against alcohol related cases and defendants who came before him on a daily basis.
Even during the almost year of a pending judicial misconduct complaint, Judge Harmon maintained his display. Absurdly Judge Harmon even suggested to the Commission during its investigation that photographs of the display, made part of the complaint, were staged or altered.
Right around the first of the year, the plaque mysteriously abandoned its home on the bench. Come to find out, Judge Harmon seemed to be aware of an impending decision of reprimand coming from the Commission.
The State Commission on Judicial Conduct took action on our complaint. The Commission issued a private reprimand against Judge Harmon. The Commission cited his display of the plaque as against his obligation to avoid the appearance of impropriety and his bizarre comments regarding the motion to recuse him for failing to remove the plaque. In this side issue, the Commission noted Judge Harmon’s improper ruling on the face of the recusal motion. Harmon had written it was clear to the defendant that the judge was impartial based on her decision to elect judicial punishment in the event of a guilty verdict. However, the law does not allow the judge to make a response to a recusal; his duty is merely to refer the motion to be heard by a neutral magistrate.
All-in-all, despite requests and admonishments, Judge Harmon refused to remove the offensive display from the public courtroom. HCCLA saw no alternative but to file a formal complaint with the Commission. And, thankfully, the Commission took action and issued its reprimand.
Many thanks to Tyler Flood for challenging the issue and providing us with great documentation of the conduct. Thanks to Robert Fickman, Andrea Podlesney, and Mark Bennett for their fine work in drafting the grievance. Many folks came forward and provided the evidence and documentation to support the complaint. Thank you to all.
The body of the complaint and the letter from the State Commission on Judicial Conduct can be viewed and downloaded below.
The Houston Chronicle reported the private sanction on Saturday, February 27, 2016 on page B2.