A judicial conduct expert said he sees ethical red flags in accusations raised in a complaint recently filed against 56th District Court Judge Lonnie Cox.
Friendswood attorney Greg Enos filed the complaint Jan. 4, and revealed it in a lengthy newsletter item published Tuesday morning. Cox called the complaint politically motivated and the accusations frivolous. Cox is running against incumbent County Judge Mark Henry for the county judge position in the March Republican primary.
Enos denies any political motive for his complaint, writing he has nothing to gain personally as a lawyer practicing in the county by taking on a powerful judge.
In an interview with The Daily News, he said he did not plan to vote in the Republican primary election because he’s a Democrat. But he personally stood to benefit more from Cox being elected than Henry because Cox would no longer be a judge and would likely be more generous to the courts, he said.
The complaint centers on the relationship between Cox and Galveston attorney Mark Stevens, who has represented Cox in an ongoing dispute between the judge and Galveston County Commissioners. It accuses Cox of receiving discounted legal fees — and sometimes even free work — from Stevens in that case, while the attorney continued to represent criminal and civil clients in Cox’s court.
Accepting reduced or free legal services from an attorney could be construed as a gift and give an appearance of impropriety, especially if the attorney providing those services continued to have cases in the judge’s court, said James Alfini, a law professor and dean emeritus at South Texas College of Law who specializes in judicial ethics.
“This situation has all sorts of ethical issues,” Alfini said, prefacing that he couldn’t speak to any criminal violations. “It seems to me there’s enough here it would trigger an investigation pretty quickly.”
Cox has denied those allegations. He paid the same in legal fees as would be charged in a court-appointed case, which was the agreement between Cox and Stevens, Cox said.
“Mark Stevens represented me at a rate that he and I agreed upon ($66/hour). $66/hour is the rate that Galveston County has approved for court appointed cases, and is therefore a reasonable rate,” Cox said.
“Enos now wants to tell Mark Stevens how to run his business and how much money to charge his clients.”
In his article explaining the complaint, Enos outlines Stevens’ payments and cases he had in Cox’s court while representing Cox.
Stevens typically charges clients $150 per hour, but charged Cox at a 56 percent discount, Enos wrote. According to invoices Stevens provided Enos, Stevens had also not charged for certain items a lawyer would typically charge for, such as reviewing the opponents’ filings, Enos said.
“The fact that Stevens clearly did not charge Judge Cox for substantial amounts of legal work becomes very important because Stevens at the same time was appearing in front of Judge Cox on other cases and it is a crime for a judge to accept a ‘benefit’ from a person the judge knows is interested in or likely to become interested in any matter before the judge,” Enos wrote in his newsletter.
In his response to Enos, Stevens said he had enjoyed working on the case, presumably as an answer to why he had agreed to do it for a cheaper rate.
“I have often told people that Cox v. Henry was fun — and I mean that,” Stevens wrote to Enos.
“True, I earn my living practicing law, but I long ago realized (it) was not my karma to make a fortune at it. If I had done the case pro bono and paid all of the out of pocket expenses I would have considered myself well compensated.”
While Stevens or Cox had moved some of Stevens’ clients cases out of Cox’s court, in other instances Cox heard cases in which Stevens was the counsel, Enos said. During the time Stevens represented Cox, Cox had also appointed Stevens to a criminal case 13 times, Enos said.
“Texas law makes it clear that a judge should not hear a case presented by a lawyer who is at the same time representing the judge in another case,” Enos wrote. “In that situation, the judge should recuse himself.”
Stevens told Enos he had routinely transferred cases out of Cox’s court unless they were uncontested beyond a plea bargain, though Enos found at least one case that had been contested and remained in Cox’s court, Enos said.
Stevens also said in plea bargain situations he had advised the defendant and prosecutors on the case that he was representing Cox, Enos wrote. But Enos said whether or not the parties involved objected was irrelevant to the ethics at hand.
“Our entire system of laws will crumble if the public loses confidence in judges,” Enos said. “This is why ethics rules tell judges to avoid even the appearance of misconduct.”
From an outsider perspective, a judge hearing even an uncontested case involving an attorney representing him at reduced rates could raise questions among observers about a judge’s integrity and impartiality, Alfini said.
Generally speaking, a judge should recuse himself from any cases involving an attorney they’ve also hired to represent them to avoid even an appearance of impropriety, Alfini said.
“One of the most important values in a democracy is that we have impartial judges and this kind of behavior brings a judge’s impartiality into question,” Alfini said.
“Now if everything Mr. Stevens says is true or correct, maybe that explains away the behavior. But frankly I would still have questions. There’s enough there to warrant an investigation.”
Alfini questioned why the case hadn’t been referred first to the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, the state agency assigned to investigate judicial misconduct claims, instead of the district attorney’s office.
Enos, who has filed complaints against other judges, including County Court at Law Judge Chris Dupuy, in an earlier interview said the commission had not become involved until after the district attorney’s office had investigated.
Enos has requested that District Attorney Jack Roady recuse himself and appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the complaint. Roady on Tuesday declined to comment while the complaint is investigated.