Controversy in the courtroom: East Texas judge resigns after public reprimand

Controversy in the courtroom: East Texas judge resigns after public reprimand
Published: Apr. 29, 2016 at 6:47 AM CDT|Updated: Aug. 5, 2016 at 9:33 PM CDT
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RED RIVER COUNTY, TX (KSLA) - An ArkLaTex judge accused of violating the very rules he was supposed to uphold in his court has resigned, but the controversy he left in his wake continues to affect hundreds of cases he was connected to over his years on the bench.

The Honorable Judge Eric Clifford was elected, serving since 2009 in the 6th district court of Texas. He presides over cases across Lamar and Red River counties and has also served as a mayor, city councilman and director of the local bank in his small hometown of Paris about 2.5 hours from Shreveport.

The 66-year-old judge claims to know everyone who sets foot in his courtroom. It's a recognition that some believe has led to a web of controversy across his community.

"It became clear to me that he knew the law he was indifferent to the law," said attorney Don Haslam.

In more than six years on the bench, Judge Clifford has been accused of threatening a police officer, using his influence and title as a judge to influence outside business, talking about cases outside of the courtroom and showing bias on cases involving people he knew, among other allegations.

Those allegations were detailed in a nearly 400-page complaint before the Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct in August of 2015.  In September, the Commission handed down a public reprimand against Judge Clifford. It is the toughest punishment a sitting judge can receive aside from losing his or her seat on the bench.

Read the public reprimand against Judge Clifford here

KSLA News 12 looked into complaints against Judge Clifford and tracked down the man who launched the controversial investigation.

"These allegations in my complaint were firsthand encounters of observations of conduct I observed," Haslam said.

Attorney Don Haslam says it got to the point where he could no longer practice law and look the other way.

"He looked at me and said 'Mr.Haslam I don't give a damn what you're concerned about, it was all I needed to say no not while I am here this is not going to happen," said Haslam.

Haslam wasn't alone. Witnesses to Judge Clifford's behavior surfaced from all corners of the courtroom. Rustin Wright was among them. He went before the judge in 2013 for a child custody case.

"Waiting in the gallery as Don Haslam was representing one of his clients and Judge Clifford had already made up his mind that he was going away for the rest of his life. He repeated it multiple times and it was terrifying because I knew I was next up, and the judge was like 'off with his head, who is next,' I am next," recalls Wright.

Based on his concerns, Wright filed this complaint with the State Commission on Judicial Conduct. Judge Clifford later recused himself and Wright is still waiting on his case to be heard.

Just over the county line in Red River County, Texas, another defendant took the same action.

"I started reading the canons and I realized not only has he violated them he's gone way over board," said Brad Decker.

Our investigation reveals how Judge Clifford admitted under oath to breaking some of the rules of the Texas Code of Judicial Conduct also known as canons.

In the case of State vs. Erskine dating back to 2012, the complaint says Judge Clifford openly discussed details of a murder case outside the courtroom answering questions from the audience at a local Kiwanis Club. The judge went on to express his opinion that some people "need to be killed."  He later recused himself. 

According to the public reprimand, in 2013 Judge Clifford was accused of threatening a Paris, Texas police officer over allegations that the officer's children were harassing some relatives of his court reporter. During questioning about the incident before the State Commission, Judge Clifford initially denied the harassment but later admitted he was "likely" involved.

Between 2013 and 2014, the Commission found Judge Clifford failed to comply with the Texas Fair Defense Act and Lamar County's Indigent Defense Plan. Each attorney representing a defendant who cannot afford counsel is on a rotating public appointment list also known as the "wheel," which is paid through the Texas Indigent Defense Commission.

Defense attorneys are supposed to receive an equal number of cases, but records from the Lamar County Auditor's Office show Attorney David Turner received a "disproportionately high percentage" of cases more than any other attorney with indigent cases totaling more than $82,000.

Attorney Haslam got the least, just $30,000. According to the State Commission's report in 2013 Judge Clifford temporarily removed Haslam's name from the rotation without his knowledge.

"I didn't know I was not getting more appointments. I was so busy doing what I was doing, I didn't learn about it until I filed my complaint with state board of judicial conduct," recalls Haslam.

During the State Commission's investigation, Judge Clifford explained his actions, saying he "felt Turner was the most qualified and experienced attorney on the list and that he preferred to appoint Turner in murder cases because he believed that cases handled by Turner would have less chance of coming back to the judge on appeal," which was found to be a violation of judicial conduct. 

Judge Clifford also admitted during questioning by members of the State Commission, he knowingly broke the rules by remaining on the board of the directors for Lamar National Bank in Paris a bank, which his family has an ownership interest in worth more than $10 million.

The judge says he "was aware that the Texas Code of Judicial Conduct prohibited his service on the Bank's board of directors but he continued to serve after assuming the bench in order to look after his family's 'substantial investment.'"

Again, a violation of the oath he took as a judge. 

Fast forward to less than one month ago to March 30th. In an unexpected twist, the Honorable Judge Eric Clifford suddenly resigned from his elected position giving less than a week's notice.  Those closest to him say the decision had nothing to do with the numerous complaints against him or the public reprimand.

"He felt his health would prevent him from campaigning, "said Judge Bill Harris.

We've learned Judge Clifford filed for and was granted disability retirement following a scooter accident and will receive half of his $140,000 judge's salary or about $70,000 a year.

KSLA made repeated attempts to reach Judge Clifford, including making the nearly 3 hour drive to his home in Paris, Texas for his reaction to our investigation and the public reprimand against him. We knocked on several doors, but never got an answer. 

"Frankly I think to many of us, it is truly offensive that Mr.Clifford has left the bench in these circumstances," said Haslam.

Haslam believes it will take years to remove the controversy from Judge Clifford's courtroom.

"Whoever takes the bench next is going to have to do good work for a long time, to restore the dignity of the bench the community deserves."

As we mentioned before, Clifford received a public reprimand the harshest punishment possible by the State board Commission on Judicial Conduct.
The board could have made a recommendation of removal to the Supreme Court. The Supreme court would have then selected a review tribunal. The Texas board tells KSLA News 12 it's not easy removing an elected judge from office, it's a process but it's possible in this case they felt a public reprimand was the best way to go.

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