UPDATED! As I pointed out earlier on this site, I have been involved more than once in defending judges. But it is difficult to know what to say about the following Houston Chronicle story today and the accompanying YouTube video:

Aransas County officials and Rockport police are reviewing a video recently posted on YouTube that shows a county court-at-law judge mercilessly beating his teenage daughter with a belt and cursing her as his former wife looked on.

“Obviously it is a very disturbing video. We in my office as well as everyone on earth is taking a look at it, at this time,” said Aransas County Attorney Richard Bianchi, who confirmed that the man wielding the belt in the video is County Court-at Law-Judge William Adams.

The seven-minute, 35-second video is dated 2004 and was purportedly posted by the judge’s daughter, Hillary Adams, for acquiring music and games on internet sites her parents disapproved of, according to a note attached to it….

Authorities say that Adams will not be charged with a crime because too much time has passed. Putting aside any issue of criminal charges or the passage of time, however, I see a big issue presenting itself, i.e. does private behavior like that depicted in the video constitute sanctionable misconduct by a lawyer or a judge?

Rule 8.04(a)(2) of the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct provides that a lawyer shall not commit a “serious crime” or any other criminal act reflecting adversely on the lawyer’s honesty, trustworthiness, or fitness. In 2004, Formal Opinion 04-433 by the ABA Commission on Ethics and Professional Responsibility noted that lawyers have been found to be in violation of such a rule because of domestic violence. Texas uses the term “family violence” and defines it in Section 71.004 of the Family Code.

The Texas definition of child abuse includes “physical injury that results in substantial harm to the child, or the genuine threat of substantial harm from physical injury to the child.” As the Texas Attorney General’s website explains the definition of “child abuse,” it “specifically excludes ‘reasonable’ discipline by the child’s parent, guardian, or conservator; corporal punishment is not in itself abusive under the law. An act or omission is abusive only if ‘observable and material impairment’ occurs as a result, or if it causes ‘substantial harm,’ or exposes the child to risk of substantial harm.” Interestingly, the Attorney General omits the part of the statutory definition that refers to “the genuine threat of substantial harm from physical injury.” The reader might wish to listen to what Judge Adams threatened to do to his daughter and decide whether or not it included such a genuine threat. I do not recommend that casual readers view the video.

Article V, section 1-a(6)A of the Texas Constitution provides that a judge can be disciplined or removed for “willful or persistent conduct that is clearly inconsistent with the proper performance of his duties or casts public discredit upon the judiciary or administration of justice.” Canon 4 of the Texas Code of Judicial Conduct provides that a judge shall conduct all of his activities off the bench so that they do not cast reasonable doubt on his capacity to act impartially as a judge.

Aside from all that, as shown by the following case law, which is worth quoting at length, a judge’s private life can be the basis for judicial discipline:

Respondent next contends that the majority of his misdeeds were conducted not in his official capacity as a judge, but as a private citizen and should not be sanctionable. The Texas Code of Judicial Conduct does not distinguish between the two. Canon 1 states that a judge should participate in establishing, maintaining, and enforcing high standards of conduct and should personally observe those standards so that the integrity and independence of the judiciary is preserved. Canon 2 states that a judge should act at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary. Neither of these Canons limit[s] application of these standards nor suggest[s] that they are to be observed only when the judge is on the bench or acting in some official capacity.

Does the Code of Judicial Conduct intrude into a judge’s private life? Most definitely. But that is a path chosen when the decision to seek office is made. A judge must observe the high standards promulgated by the Code of Judicial Conduct both on and off the bench in order to maintain the integrity of the judiciary:

The ethical standards governing judges’ off-the-bench conduct recognize that judges play a unique role in society. Respect for those who serve as judges and for their integrity and independence is essential if the public is to believe that justice is being done in the courts. Restrictions on judges’ extra-judicial conduct are necessary to avoid both conduct and relationships that convey the appearance that judges will not be impartial in their judicial functions.

In re Lowery, 999 S.W.2d 639, (Tex.Rev.Trib. 1998, pet.denied).

Adams, whose court has jurisdiction over cases of child abuse, already was a judge at the time of the beating. Reportedly he has agreed to take a paid leave of absence. He also has told the media that the incident looks worse than it was and that he does not expect to be disciplined. On that last point, however, we may be permitted to differ with the judge.

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