Monday, February 02, 2015

Brazos judges violated Open Meetings Act on decision to fire probation director

Judges in Brazos County met privately three times last month to plan the firing of probation director John McGuire, reported the Bryan College Station Eagle (Feb. 1):
No criminal charges are expected against the judges who voted to terminate Brazos County's probation director on Friday after discussing the matter in private earlier in the month in admitted violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act.
District Judge Travis Bryan notified Brazos County District Attorney Jarvis Parsons of a possible violation on Tuesday. Bryan said he immediately contacted Parsons after attorneys made him aware of the situation.
After researching the matter and discussing it with attorneys around the state, including former Brazos County District Attorney Bill Turner, Parsons declined to prosecute because no action was taken during the discussions and there did not appear to be a "willful violation."

Instead, he drafted a memo for the judges informing them on the Open Meetings Act "so this never happens again," Parsons said, adding that the previous judges' meetings were "not an intentional or deceptive misstep but one that needed to be corrected." As of Friday evening, Parsons said he had delivered the memos to three of the five judges.

Bryan and District Judge Kyle Hawthorne, along with county court-at-law judges Jim Locke and Amanda Matzke, unanimously voted on Friday to terminate the employment of John McGuire, who had been director of the Brazos County Community Supervision and Corrections Department since 2010. Judge Steve Smith was not in attendance due to a State Bar Rules Committee meeting in Austin that was scheduled in November.

The judges cited a loss of confidence in McGuire following more than a year of complaints as the reason for his dismissal following a public meeting and a 35-minute closed session.

The notice of the meeting was signed by the county clerk just before noon on Tuesday, providing the required 72-hour notice.
Bryan, however, acknowledged Friday that the judges had met three times earlier in the month to discuss McGuire's employment while unaware that their meetings regarding the head of a probation department would be subject to the Open Meetings Act, as noted in a 1996 opinion by then-Texas Attorney General Dan Morales
Fascinating. With some frequency over the years Grits has had various judicial candidates approach me to discuss issues, the job, whether they should run, and a variety of other topics. Something I always tell folks running for local criminal courts, particularly people who've never been a judge before, is that one of the most important duties they'll never get credit for is serving as a de facto board of directors member for the probation department. Most candidates are unaware until I say that that such service would number among their duties. And scarce few judges indeed take those duties as seriously as they warrant upon assuming office.

In a past life, your correspondent spent 14 years performing opposition research for political campaigns, including numerous judicial races around the state. It was then that I learned screwups at the probation department - for which judges are responsible but only vaguely aware - could be an excellent source of a blind-side attack to which an incumbent would typically fumble and flounder in reaction.

Since I'm out of the game, here's a pro tip on developing campaign attacks against judges: It can be frustrating as an opposition researcher to vet judicial incumbents' casework for campaign attacks because wannabe judges rightly don't want to risk future recusal by campaigning on issues about which they may later rule. Thus, attacks involving individual decisions or stuff that happened in court typically must be relegated to surrogates, who in turn can be difficult to recruit and even harder to control. Unlike other political candidates, judicial campaigns as a practical matter can't (or shouldn't) address the legal issues over which they'll eventually preside. Judges' policy decisions, however, are fair game, and their role as de facto boardmembers for the probation department is a policymaking function. So if you're looking for areas where a judicial campaign can spend money on direct attacks, critiquing management of the probation department is an area where your candidate can come out and say something specific and critical about an incumbent, like, "They violated the Open Meetings Act!" Or, "They were ignorant of the laws and duties governing their office." etc..

Management of probation departments is one of those dark underbelly areas of government where the press seldom venture and few but the most experienced judges take the responsibility as seriously as they probably should, as evidenced by this episode in Bryan. Nobody in the local judiciary understood the management role they were playing and how it differed from their function in the legal process. They're not alone, I can assure you, they just happened to get exposed.


Soronel Haetir said...

And it still seems incredibly odd to me that probation in Texas is managed by the judiciary. That just seems like a major conflict in an area with already near to non-existent protection against the system.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Not saying it's right, Soronel, it's just how it is. It's definitely a dysfunctional setup.

Anonymous said...

Why has Matt Bingham not been exposed I his den of thieves?
"Nobody in the local judiciary understood the management role they were playing and how it differed from their function in the legal process. They're not alone, I can assure you, they just happened to get exposed."

John McGuire said...

Mr. Henson, I am John McGuire, the probation director who was the subject of the hearing last Friday. I served 53 months as Director of Brazos County CSCD, and prior to that, 14 months as Director of Walker County CSCD. To this day, I still do not know the nature of the complaints made against me. During the past year, when these complaints were supposedly made, I met with these judges, in their chambers or in their courts. Nothing was said. The recently retired (Dec 31st) judge from the 85th District Court, who attended the hearing on Friday, was stunned at the 3 day sequence of events. The district judge who could not attend due to attendance at a conference had been the probation department liaison judge for the previous 4 years, and would never have hesitated to call me on the carpet to answer for poor leadership or misconduct. More than half of my department watched in stunned silence, and then in tears, as I was thrown away like a used tissue.

What does the record of my tenure reflect? No financial malfeasance of any kind (in fact, the financial health of the department is very good), and can be confirmed by the results of annual independent audits. Lawsuits for sexual harassment, gender or age discrimination, or for personnel issues of any kind? None. Efforts to support victims? Noteworthy. Efforts to work with local law enforcement? Strong. Outreach to the local defense bar? Check.

So you ask, why did you get canned, Mr. McGuire? I'm still waiting for a reasonable explanation, and the opportunity to face my accusers. Ironic that a criminal in court has more rights than I did on Friday. Ask around, Mr. Henson. I trust my reputation among my peers (now, my former peers). Before you automatically assume that I was a sack of crap as a Director, do some homework.

Anonymous said...

Probation is an extension of the judiciary so the state does not have to pay out settlements when Probation Officers violate rights of those they supervise due to judicial immunity.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Mr. McGuire, I don't think this post assumed or implied that you were a "sack of crap as a Director," and if you took it that way please accept my apology. This item intended primarily to criticize the lack of transparency and dysfunctional judicial oversight structure of CSCDs, which obviously have frustrated you, too. My email is Please update me as you find out more detail about what went down.

rodsmith said...

well Mr. McGuire I think you should not only sue the state of texas for unlawful termination but demand the job back with back pay.

take em to the cleaners.

Anonymous said...

I am going to see just locke soon about a pr bond I got for some pot possession. Is he an easy going judge?
I've paid all my fines and am in no debt to the county or probation office.