AUSTIN, Texas – A coalition of civil rights organizations has filed a judicial misconduct complaint against a conservative federal judge for discriminatory comments she allegedly made during a speech, including that some racial groups were predisposed to violent crime.
Judge Edith Jones of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals addressed the University of Pennsylvania law school on Feb. 20. Her comments were not recorded, but five students and one attorney who were in attendance signed affidavits swearing to what they heard.
The complaint alleges that Jones said certain "racial groups like African-Americans and Hispanics are predisposed to crime," and that they are "prone to commit acts of violence" and be involved in more violent and "heinous" crimes than people of other ethnicities. The judge also allegedly said Mexicans would prefer to be on death row in the U.S. than serve prison terms in their native country, and that it's an insult for the U.S. to look to the laws of other countries such as Mexico.
The allegations were laid out in a 12-page complaint backed by several Texas groups and filed Tuesday in New Orleans, where the appeals court is based. The complaint said Jones engaged in conduct that, among other things, "undermines public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary, and creates a strong appearance of impropriety."
A message seeking comment left at Jones' law office in Houston was not returned. Appointed by President Ronald Reagan, Jones has served on the court since 1985 and was its chief justice for seven years, until October 2012.
"Students were appalled by her speech," said Katie Naranjo, a spokeswoman for the coalition backing the complaint that includes the Mexican Capital Legal Assistance Program, the League of United Latin American Citizens and the Texas Civil Rights Project. The NAACP in Austin and the National Bar Association's Houston affiliate also are included.
The complaint also states that Jones said defendants' claims of racism, innocence, arbitrariness, and violations of international law and treaties are just "red herrings" used by opponents of the death penalty. She allegedly said claims of "mental retardation" by capital defendants disgust her, and the fact that those defendants were convicted of a capital crime is sufficient to prove they are not "mentally retarded."
And she said a death sentence provides a service to capital-case defendants because they are likely to make peace with God only just before their execution, according to the complaint.
Naranjo said the coalition is demanding an investigation. She said it took months for those who heard Jones' comments to contact lawyers and verify that they could warrant a formal complaint. It also took time to compile the affidavits, she said.
The coalition said Jones' comments resembled those made during the trial of Duane Buck, a black Texan sentenced to death in 1997 for the murder of his former girlfriend and another man.
At Buck's trial, a state psychologist listed race as one of several factors in describing the danger he would continue to pose. Though the psychologist was called to the stand by defense lawyers, a prosecutor emphasized the testimony in her closing argument.
Later, then-Texas Attorney General John Cornyn identified the case as among six in which race had played an inappropriate role in death sentences. The other inmates all received new sentencing hearings, and they've been resentenced to death. Buck hasn't received a new hearing.
"Judge Jones's comments are frighteningly similar to those that violated Duane Buck's constitutional rights," said Christina Swarns, one of Buck's lawyers and director of the Criminal Justice Project of the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund.