Texas Judicial Conduct is Sometimes Left for the Voters to Judge

Judges are supposed to make decisions on federal crimes, not commit them. Yet Judge William Adams, a county court judge in Aransas County, Texas, very nearly did. The judge got into some serious trouble when his 23-year old daughter, Hillary, posted a video on YouTube of some family bonding from 2004. Only instead of bonding, the video footage showed Judge Adams lashing his then 16-year old daughter with a belt as she begged him to stop. Within a few days, the video got more than four million views.

Judge Adams responded with the maturity that one would expect of someone in his position. When confronted with the video evidence, he claimed that his daughter was trying to get back at him for reducing her financial support and threatening to take away her Mercedes. The Aransas County District Attorney investigated the matter and concluded that the Texas statute of limitations had already expired. He claims that he would have pressed charges if that hadn’t been the case. That meant that the only way Judge Adams could be prosecuted for a crime was if a U.S. attorney pressed charges. After viewing the video footage, the U.S. attorney’s office found that no federal crime had been committed.

Ironically, the judge oversaw a lot of juvenile abuse cases. The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, which is conducting its own investigation, has asked that he be removed from hearing these cases until the investigation is concluded. Judge Adams is already taking a two-week leave, while an interim judge has come in to hear all of his cases.

It’s never pleasant to read stories about judges behaving badly. At least this judge seems to have kept his darker side private — unlike a certain judge in Pennsylvania who abused his position at the expense of dozens of young people who appeared before his court. Still, it does raise the question of whether a judge who commits violence in private is an unfit judge — even if his violence is not illegal (under federal law, at least). Judges in general are held to a higher standard because they hold our lives in their hands, so to speak. While many of them began their careers as prosecutors or criminal defense attorneys, when they become judges, they “cross over.” Texas judges must abide by a code of conduct, as do federal judges. While the letter of the Texas code of conduct does not prohibit violence against family members, it is hard to imagine that anyone would be able to overlook it. Especially when it could color the judge’s view of cases that come before his court every day. So the answer to the earlier question — is a judge unfit even if his violence does not break laws? — is likely yes.

At least there is one consolation to the Judge Adams situation. Unlike a federal judge, who can stay in office forever unless he is impeached, Judge Adams must periodically run for office, as Texas judges are selected at the ballot box. If he is not removed or does not resign, his term will be up in three years. And then the voters can choose whether to keep him or kick him out.