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Eckhardt cleared of judicial conduct sanction

Thursday, January 13, 2022 by Jo Clifton

Austin state Sen. Sarah Eckhardt, a lifelong Democrat, has won her battle with the Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct. In December 2020, the commission issued an admonition against Eckhardt for comments she made as Travis County Judge in 2017 and 2019. At the time she made the remarks, she was the leader of the Travis County Commissioners Court, a non-judicial position. Eckhardt was elected to the Texas Senate in July 2020.

A Special Court of Review appointed by the Texas Supreme Court to consider her appeal ruled this week that, while Eckhardt’s office carried the title “judge,” her duties were in fact as a legislator and executive. The court vacated the sanctions levied by the commission and prohibited any further sanctions.

Eckhardt told the Austin Monitor, “I’m very, very happy that three Republican judges ruled on the basis of the U.S. Constitution. It shows there is a bipartisan commitment to the U.S. Constitution in the Texas courts and that gives me hope.”

Travis County Commissioners Court, Jan. 17, 2017.

Eckhardt expressed herself on the dais in January 2017 when she wore a pink pussy hat while presiding over a meeting of the Commissioners Court. Under discussion was a proposed resolution in support of women’s health and reproductive rights. Eckhardt’s hat was in protest of a widely disseminated statement about women made by the current president.

Eckhardt also appeared on a panel of the Texas Tribune Festival in September 2019. One of the topics discussed was “actions at the state government level in Texas to override or preempt local government measures, such as regulation of ride-sharing services and tree preservation ordinances.” Eckhardt made a quip that “Texas Gov. Greg Abbott hates trees because one fell on him.” The reference was to Abbott’s partial paralysis that resulted from a tree falling on him. Eckhardt later apologized for that statement.

The following day, an anonymous individual filed a complaint with the Commission on Judicial Conduct, saying, “I do not trust her to have unbiased decisions and believe any conservative Republican should be in fear when entering her courtroom,” according to the court’s opinion.

The court concluded that the commission was wrong about Eckhardt’s actual job and First Amendment restrictions. In the ruling, the judges wrote that the state’s interest in restricting judges “from injuring public confidence in the integrity of the judicial branch wanes when their status as a ‘judge’ is in name only, like here. It wanes when the sole function of the ‘judge,’ like here, is that of an executive or legislator thrust into an arena inherently requiring public debate and input as part of the office.”

Austin attorney James Cousar represented Eckhardt before the court of review. The judges making the ruling were Brian Quinn, chief justice of the 7th Court of Appeals; Charles Kreger, justice of the 9th Court of Appeals; and W. Stacy Trotter, justice of the 11th Court of Appeals.

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