If one thread ties together most government malfeasance stories that we’ve published, it’s the utter lack of accountability that public officials face after betraying the public trust. A pending ruling of an investigation by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct (CJC) recently caught our attention because, time and time again, we’ve seen powerful public officials skirt accountability.
In the past couple of years alone, Tarrant County’s tax assessor-collector tried to bypass vendor hiring guidelines as a favor to a law firm that donates to her campaigns, and a retired deputy police chief was allowed to quietly retire after being investigated for sexual harassment.
All of this brings us to Danny Rodgers. The chief judge who oversees Fort Worth’s nine municipal courts was the target of a human resources complaint in 2019. Judge Ann Y. Collins, who works under him, alleged that Rodgers, a white man, discriminated against her, a Black woman, based on her gender, age, and race and that he retaliated against her when she reported his behavior. Included in the complaint, which is nearly 100 pages long, are numerous emails documenting the events. Rodgers, the complaint alleges, would tell Collins how his family used to own a plantation and enslaved Black men and women. His tone, Collins claims, was “condescending, intimidating, demeaning, and degrading.”
Rodgers allegedly also placed a mousepad with a picture of a plantation on Collins’ bench, one part of the complaint read. Collins alleges that Rodgers stole numerous documents from her personal cabinet as another form of retaliation.
In an email, Nathan Gregory with the city’s human resources department said that an investigation was conducted following Collins’ complaint.
“The findings were submitted to mayor and council at the time,” Gregory said. “Appropriate action was taken, and the issue was resolved.”
The spokesperson did not clarify what actions were taken, but Rodgers still comfortably heads the city’s municipal courts. Around 10 months after Collins filed the complaint, Isaiah X. Smith, a reform-minded Austin activist, wrote a letter to the CJC requesting an investigation into Judge Rodgers’ actions.
In an email, Smith told us that a CJC staffer said the two-year investigation was nearly concluded.
In his original letter to CJC, Smith said that he became interested in the issue due to his belief that the courts should be free from discrimination.
Before he could file his state-level complaint against Rodgers, Smith had to obtain a copy of Collins’ complaint. The city Secretary’s Office, which fulfills requests filed under the Texas Public Information Act, worked against the interests of the public, and Smith, by attempting to block his simple request — a problem that our reporters too frequently run into. On July 2, 2019, the State Attorney General’s Office ruled that city staff were compelled to release the letters to Smith.
We reached out to CJC for comment on the pending investigation results but did not hear back by press time.
The CJC sounds scary but really isn’t. All it can do in non-criminal cases is sanction judges via a private or public reprimand, a.k.a. a private slap on the wrist or a public slap on the wrist. If Judge Rodgers is sanctioned, he’ll be in good company. CJC’s website lists three recently sanctioned judges — two of them are from Tarrant County.
One is Judge George Gallagher of our 396th Judicial District Court, who was recently publicly admonished for activating a stun cuff on a defendant’s ankle three times during a trial in 2016.
“On appeal, the El Paso Court of Appeals overturned [the defendant’s] conviction and ordered a new trial, finding Judge Gallagher did not order the activation of the stun cuff for legitimate security purposes,” the CJC ruling found.
CJC documents state that Judge Gallagher was investigated by the United States Department of Justice for criminal civil rights violations related to the stun cuff usage. Criminal charges were not filed against him.
The other sanctioned judge from our backyard, Judge Patricia Bennett of Tarrant’s 360th Judicial District Court, was publicly admonished for making overtly racist comments on social media.
“#FakeMexican,” the white judge posted about then-candidate for U.S. Senate Beto O’Rourke in 2018. She followed that comment with another racist post about State Rep. Jason Villalba, who lost that year in the state primaries.
“I’m sure [Villalba] will find a job,” Bennett subsequently posted on Facebook. “There are lots of local opportunities in both the hotel and food service industry.”
CJC ordered Bennett to take two hours of instruction with a mentor and two hours of education in racial sensitivity. A formal apology to Villalba and the broader Hispanic community would have been more appropriate.
The pending results of a CJC investigation into a Fort Worth judge and the recent actions of two Tarrant County judges follow extensive reporting by our publication on the increasing partisanship of the local know-it-alls behind our benches. Perhaps the most egregious recent attack on blind justice comes to us from the tony environs of Southlake. That’s where two Tarrant County judges, Republicans Josh Burgess and Susan McCoy, recently ruled favorably for the plaintiff in an ongoing lawsuit against the Carroll school district. That lawsuit is backed by a political action committee that has close ties to high-rollin’ financial supporters of Burgess and McCoy (“Buying Judicial Influence?” Sep 1). If you think hiring the right lawyer can buy you influence in the courtroom, imagine what buying off a judge, or judges, can do.
Public faith in our local judiciary may be at an all-time low as locals are becoming increasingly aware of documented racism and cronyism at the city and county levels. A majority of roughly 100,000 Tarrant County voters recently decided to snub the local district attorney’s request for $160 million in bond monies that would have gone toward new facilities and equipment for county prosecutors. Maybe that’s us saying, “Enough is enough.”
City and county judges would not be able to skirt accountability without a system in place that shields all public officials from being held responsible for unethical and criminal actions that would leave ordinary citizens facing lawsuits or jail time. If the allegations against Rodgers are upheld by the CJC, he may face what amounts to a slap on the wrist, but he could be revealed to be a racist bully whose actions have led to two investigations (and counting).
This column reflects the opinions of the editorial board and not necessarily the Fort Worth Weekly. To submit a column, please email Editor Anthony Mariani at Anthony@FWWeekly.com. Submissions will be edited for factuality and clarity.