Ex-judicial panelists: Abbott ousted them over gay marriage

HOUSTON (AP) — Two former members of the State Commission on Judicial Conduct said they believe Texas Gov. Greg Abbott removed them from the panel because he disagreed with them over a same-sex marriage case.

Abbott, a Republican, had appointed Amy Suhl and Maricela Alvarado to the commission in June of last year but pulled their names when it came time for the Texas Senate to confirm them nine months later. They told the Houston Chronicle that they were told the governor had simply decided to proceed in a different direction, but they said they believe he ousted them because they voted to warn a Waco judge who officiates over opposite-sex marriages but refuses to perform same-sex marriages.

Suhl recorded a meeting with Abbott’s staff and a later telephone call. The recordings, which were reviewed by the Chronicle, indicate that Abbott aides were advising her to act with Abbott’s views in mind.

As with other Texas Republican leaders, Abbott champions the rights of Texans to practice their faith on the job and in public service. That has conflicted with the rights of gay, lesbian and transgender Texans.

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Abbott spokesman John Wittman said all decisions on appointments “are made based solely on merit.”

Suhl is a retired information technology executive and Alvarado is a retired Army lieutenant colonel.

It’s unclear how the removal of the two commissioners affected the final decision in their case. However, in an action made public on Monday, the commission issued a warning to Dianne Hensley, a justice of the peace for McLennan County Precinct 1, for refusing to officiate weddings of persons of the same sex while performing opposite-sex weddings. The warning is one of the lesser disciplinary actions the commission can take.

Suhl said the Abbott staff aimed to “change them out with the hope that maybe more people would vote the way they want. I thought it was wrong. That commission is there to serve the public, to make sure judges are operating ethically, and not to serve any one group’s interest.”

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The commission consists of six judges appointed by the Texas Supreme Court, two lawyers appointed by the State Bar of Texas and five citizens appointed by the governor who are neither lawyers or judges. The panel is an independent state agency charged to ”protect the public, promote public confidence in the integrity, independence, competence, and impartiality of the judiciary, and encourage judges to maintain high standards of conduct both on and off the bench,” according to the agency website. It meets six times a year and its actions may be appealed to a special court of review selected by the chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court.

The Texas Constitution states that cases before the commission are to be confidential, But the Hensley case divided the commission deeply, Suhl said. Alvarado said that after an initial vote in favor of sanctions in late 2018, Abbott’s staff called her for a meeting, ostensibly for training. Instead, they questioned her about how she decided cases.

After learning of Alvarado’s experience, Suhl decided to secretly record her own meeting with Abbott’s staff. The recording revealed an Abbott staffer asking, “What are you using to gauge what you think the governor would want you to be doing? Because I’m not sure we’ve given you those tools yet, and that’s what I think our concern is.”

Suhl said she heard nothing more from Abbott’s office until a staff member told her the governor had “decided to go in a different direction.”