Saturday, April 15, 2017

County Judges Behaving Badly (Happy "County Government Month")

But your Honor, I was just tryin' to breathe...


Yes, faithful readers, I know you visit here to get the scoop on local issues.  But a recent news item about the county judge from Limestone County getting arrested for DWI started the wheels turning in my head.

"Doh!"
(Limestone County Judge Daniel Burkeen)
 
Okay, let's have a little civics lesion for those of you who don't know what a "county judge" is.  The county judge should not be confused with judges who preside over other courts such as district courts, county courts-at-law, etc.  The county judge is an elected official who presides over the county commissioners court, which is the governing body of a county.  In most Texas counties, the county judge may also have some judicial duties, such as mental health and probate hearings.  So, except for the limited judicial duties, you can think of a county judge as being like the "mayor" of a county.

So, back to Limestone County Judge Daniel Burkeen.*  He got pulled over and arrested for drunk driving in the town of Mart, TX.  Admitted later that he didn't even know how he got there.  Two hours after getting to the jail, he blew a blood alcohol level of .114 (legal limit 0.080) on a breathalyzer.  Run-of-the-mill drunk driving story except it is an elected official, a "judge."  Again, boring.  But what puts this one over the top is Burkeen's excuse:  He was suffering from a bad asthma attack and in desperation used a "home remedy" which was a mixture of whiskey, lemon and honey.  WTH?  Has Judge Burkeen not heard of these things called inhalers?  Nebulizer treatments?  He's the county judge, for cryin' out loud--does he not have access to healthcare?

You can get it now with the honey already mixed in...
 
That's the part that made me think this was worthy of a post.  Burkeen must be a complete idiot, or he thinks his constituents are complete idiots, or both.  I did a little "scientific research" by using some website that calculates blood alcohol levels.  He blew a .114, but that was at least two hours after he was stopped, which meant that he was probably driving with a level closer to about .140 or so.  The average male of his age would have to drink something like 7 or 8 shots of whiskey in an hour to get his BAL to that level, more if he consumed the whiskey over a longer period of time!  Oh, and I like how he tugs on the heartstrings with this tear-jerker story from his childhood:

"I've had asthma all my life but never like it's been the last few weeks and I was thinking about my dad and thinking about this old home remedy where they mix whiskey and honey and lemon. I think my dad would make me drink it and I hated it, it was just an act of desperation, I was tired of struggling for breath."

What, was that like in the pioneer days, or during the Great Depression or something?  I'm imagining the family in some rustic, one-room cabin, lighted by a single kerosene lantern.  Young Daniel, barely holding on to life, gasping, struggling for each breath.  Something has to be done.  Pa comes in from the barn with a half-consumed bottle of whiskey he only gets out on special occasions, or when he needs to do business with the Injuns.  Ma goes to the cupboard to get a jar of honey they got from a beehive they found in an old hollow tree...

I don't know where the lemon would come from.  But does this guy with his cockamamie story remind you of someone?


Former Smith County Judge Joel Baker!


In 2011  Baker was investigated by police on suspicion that he was trying to make an illegal video recording of a young woman in the middle of the night.  Her bedroom window faced a residential "investment property" that Baker owned.  She called the police who discovered Baker had set up a video camera that was pointed toward the woman's home.  Baker's excuse--which the police accepted?  He was trying to catch someone who was stealing electricity by plugging into his outdoor outlet.  Um, your Honor, wouldn't you want to point the camera at the outlet instead of the neighbors' house?  Ah, never mind.  But I have to give Baker a "pass" on this one because I'm pretty sure I'm smarter than him and I would have had trouble thinking up something better.

Whew!  Got through that ordeal okay.  But in 2016  Baker was indicted for holding three illegal commissioners court meetings that blatantly violated the Texas Open Meetings Act.  Baker's defense was simply that he never "intentionally" engaged in any "technical" violations of TOMA, and the whole thing was just a "political witch-hunt."  Gotta admire that one just because of its sublime simplicity.  He got convicted, by the way.

Just for grins and giggles, here's the mugshot again.
 
But Judge Burkeen's  story about the asthma and the whiskey-honey-lemon home remedy reminded me of this one:  In March, 2016, television station KLTV aired a shocking, carefully researched  news story in which they revealed Baker had exchanged over a thousand obscene messages--including pictures of his own genitalia--with a woman he'd never met in person.  Some of those messages were sent and received while he was supposed to be sitting in hearings for the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, of which Baker was the vice president!  Baker also exchanged some naughty messages while he was on a taxpayer-funded trip for continuing education.  It was Baker's response to this one that left me speechless.  He babbled on about "anonymous blogs" (mine) and "ridiculous allegations."  Then this:

I was contacted in early January by an anonymous caller telling me there were people out to get me who had hired a private investigator to “dig up dirt” on me, and they were planning to use a female to catch me in a compromising “rendezvous” situation.  This new revelation took the situation to the next level and caused me great concern for the safety of my family...Thinking she might be the person that the anonymous caller referred to, my wife and I agreed that I would continue the conversation with (identity withheld) to find out who was behind this mess.  [She] sent two sexually explicit videos of herself.  She asked to meet me and I agreed to meet in an attempt to determine who she was working with and/or to confront these people.

Oh, and he outright denied sending any naughty pictures of himself.  But those sneaky people at KLTV (who must have been in on this whole thing from the get-go) went the extra mile.  The found the hotel room where Baker stayed in Austin--where some of the naughty pictures were taken--and the room matched the room in the naughty pictures in every detail!  And another picture of Baker's nether-parts was taken in a vehicle with an interior that was an exact match to Baker's Toyota Camry.  Wow!  What a conspiracy!

Um, okay Joel, the key to successful lying is to make your lies at least sound plausible.  If they have pictures of your junk, don't try to say that you didn't send pictures of your junk.  When you're outright caught in the act, or "red-handed," so to speak,  your  best option might be to take the route celebrities often take, which is a sort of mens rea defense:  Claim that because of some medical or mental condition you were completely out of your mind when you did the naughty behavior.  Popular options include "bi-polar" disorder or some kind of sexual addiction stemming from deep-seated anguish, preferably going back to traumatic experiences in childhood.  Or, hey, sometimes just admitting guilt and acting really sorry about it is the best way to go.  I might have had just the tiniest, microscopic shred of respect for Baker if he had just gone all-out Jimmy Swaggert on us and stood at the podium, tears streaming down his face, confessing his horrible sin and begging his constituents for forgiveness.

So, where am I going with this?


Crime wave


Well, it just seems like lately every time you turn around, some county judge in Texas is getting into trouble.  My rather unscientific research on this, which amounted to about 30 minutes of searching on Google, yielded six other arrests of county judges in the past five years:
Okay, counting Judges Burkeen and Baker, that makes eight county judges who have been arrested in the past five years; six just in the past year!***  Those are only the ones that we know about because the news stories were available online.  I'm wondering how many others were either swept under the rug or were reported in small-town newspapers that don't keep all of their stories online.  And we would never be able to ascertain how many incidents of possible criminal behavior--like Joel Baker's alleged peeping-Tom incident--were "investigated" and resulted in a "have a nice day, your Honor." Considering that there are only 254 county judges in Texas, doesn't that seem like a lot of arrests and criminal charges?  Sure, that still yields an arrest rate far below the state average for the general population, but these are judges for crying out loud!  By comparison a search for "mayors arrested [in] Texas" only yielded a handful--and there are almost five times as many cities in Texas as there are counties.  I was too lazy to do similar research on county commissioners.  But it just seems that they also get caught up in corruption investigations and other scandals far too often.

So what is it with county judges?  I can only speculate, but I think this phenomenon may have something to do with the nature of county governments.  County governments are kind of "invisible" to most people.  The average college-educated Joes or Janes on the street can usually name their mayor, their member of congress, the governor.  Maybe their state legislators.  But ask them about county government and you usually get a blank stare.  Most Texans have very little knowledge of how county governments work or what they do.  So when it comes to being informed about candidates at election time?  Pitiful.  So losers and scoundrels running for county commissioner or county judge seats can slither into office via low-turnout elections, and there they stay.   Once they become incumbents, they become difficult to remove because of the "incumbent advantage" e.g. name recognition, political clout, control over the counties' public relations machine etc.

I don't know how to fix this, folks.  I can rage and scream and blog until I am blue in the face, but I'm tilting and windmills here.  I have some ideas, but they would require such unthinkable measures as amending the state constitution (It's done all the time.) and actually getting legislators interested in issues that actually affect the average citizen instead of spending half the legislative session arguing about whether transsexuals can go into the women's restroom.  But here they are, for what it's worth:

  • Term limits for county judges and commissioners.  Radical, I know.  But I'm thinking three terms is enough.  By that I mean three terms "total" if a person served as a commissioner then got elected as county judge.  For example, if I were a county commissioner for two terms, then I would only be able to serve as either county judge or commissioner for one more term.  And I'd say no more that two consecutive terms in any office.  (In retrospect, did you not think eight years of Judge Joel Baker was enough?)
  • Take away county judges' judicial powers.  A county judge does not have to be trained as a lawyer, but many of them preside over mental health and probate hearings.  I think they are required to get about one day of training on their legal duties before they take office.  Do you really want a guy--or lady--with one day of legal training ruling in such matters?
  • This one could help some counties, but might hurt others:  Non-partisan elections for county officers.  This would hopefully dilute the power of local political "machines."  It would also make it less likely that uniformed voters would choose candidates solely on the basis of party affiliation.  (How many incompetent officials have been inadvertently voted into office by the "straight ticket" crowd?)  Furthermore, this would give those who voted in the non-dominant party's primary a voice in choosing local leaders.  It works for many cities, so why shouldn't it work for counties?
  • And this one is my favorite--a mechanism whereby with a petition, residents of a county can force a "recall" vote to remove a county judge or county commissioner from office.  Can you imagine what might have happened in the past two years if we had that option here?
There you have it--Joorie Doodie's plan for reforming county government.  Enjoy.


*Juanita Jean might like this:  Burkeen is apparently a recent convert to Republicanism.  He ran as a Democrat in 2010, then ran for re-election in the Republican primary in 2014!

**Doyal's charges were dropped by order of the trial judge, who claimed that the part of the Texas Open Meetings Act Doyal allegedly violated was unconstitutional.  It's a long discussion, but that's total bull, in my opinion.

***Some of these arrests are for drunk driving.  I'm wondering if the recent rise in use of dash-cams and body-cams by law enforcement has something to do with this:  A few years back, if an officer pulled over the Judge and he was drunk, the officer might have discreetly called his Honor's wife to come and take him home.  Now everything would be recorded--the swerving vehicle with the "County Judge" license plate;  the slurred speech.  So it would look bad for the sheriff's department or police if some obnoxious reporter armed with a FOIA request got the video, proving the judge got preferential treatment!


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