Lawyer's ethics complaint targets 5th Circuit judge for alleged 'vitriolic' dissent

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A Texas civil rights lawyer has filed a misconduct complaint against a federal appeals court judge that takes issue with the tone of her dissent in a gerrymandering case.

The April 8 complaint accuses Circuit Judge Edith Brown Clement of writing a “vitriolic” dissent that includes “highly partisan and insulting personal comments about her federal judicial colleagues.” The Texas Lawyer has coverage.

The complaint was filed by Austin civil rights lawyer Jim Harrington.

Clement’s dissent said her two colleagues in the majority should have completely blocked a federal judge’s decision to adopt a new electoral map for a Mississippi state Senate seat. The majority had instead issued only a partial stay that gave state lawmakers time to draw a new map and extended the candidate filing deadline to April 12.

The federal judge who adopted the new map, Carlton Reeves, is a black appointee of President Barack Obama. He had invalidated Mississippi’s map after finding that it diluted African-American voting strength. The new map he adopted was one that had been drawn by plaintiffs’ experts. One of the plaintiffs was Joseph Thomas, a black senator who once represented the district.

“I am afraid defendants have simply had the poor luck of drawing a majority-minority panel,” Clement had written. The two judges in the 5th Circuit majority were Democratic appointees; a majority of the 5th Circuit consists of Republican appointees.

Harrington complained about the “majority-minority” reference, along with these passages:

• “The fact remains that [Reeves]’s order—perhaps, inadvertently—eliminated meaningful competition for Thomas in the upcoming election. The majority says that Judge Reeves’s plan is ‘narrowly tailored.’ Agreed—it is ‘narrowly tailored’ to win Thomas the election.”

• “Unless we act now, the November election in Senate District 22 is all but decided. True, predictable election results are not uncommon. What is uncommon, however, is for a federal district judge to be the one to decide them.”

Harrington said Clement’s statements “falsely, harshly and disrespectfully assumed” that the two judges in the majority decided the case based on partisan considerations. He labeled her comments “shockingly derogatory and partisan-charged attacks” against Reeves and the two 5th Circuit judges in the majority.

The complaint alleges a violation of ethics rules barring conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice and barring conduct that undermines confidence in the judiciary.

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