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County researching pulling funding for judge defense in recusals

The County Attorney is researching if County Commissioners can remove funding from the Council of Judges earmarked for the defense of judges facing recusal.

The issue stems from a report from the Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct which admonished the Council of Judges for paying two lawyers to defend Judge Mike Herrera when he was facing recusal from several cases. The state commission called the practice “blatantly improper,” saying judges should not take any action meant to influence recusals.

“If what is in the document is true, in that it is improper to fund these kinds of appeals, then certainly we should not be funding them then if we can remove the funding then I would ask during budget season that we do that,” said El Paso County Judge Veronica Escobar in an interview Monday.

County Commissioners cannot take away funding mid year. The issue would have to be settled in August and September, before the October 1st budget deadline for fiscal year 2017.

“If it’s inappropriate or it doesn’t follow the law, absolutely it’s a concern and we shouldn’t be funding it but the County Attorney’s office is still researching that for me,” said Escobar.

County Commissioner Vince Perez said the Commissioners will have to take a closer look at the matter before the budget deadline. “Not only did sanctions indicate that the practice was improper but the fact that there are some taxpayers resources that were used to file motions to defend a judge during a recusal process is a cause for concern,” he said.

The state commission reported the Council of Judges paid two lawyers so that Herrera’s recusals be heard again. Herrera’s ex-wife’s attorney filed the recusal motion against him in an effort to remove her other cases from his court.

Herrera also received a sanction from the state commission for keeping his divorce in his own court for months after it was filed.

ABC-7 reached out to the Council of Judges. Administrative Judge Alma Trejo was unavailable early Monday afternoon but did schedule an interview for Tuesday morning.
ABC-7 will do a follow up to this story Tuesday. Judge Escobar and Perez both said Trejo, who is new to the position, has brought positive change to the council.

“It’s under new leadership and Judge Alma Trejo has been pretty forward thinking in her desire to reform the Council of Judges,” said Escobar.

Ultimately, the judges don’t answer to commissioners, but to voters. “They’re held accountable directly by the people which is why it’s important for individuals when they go vote for a judge that they look at the individuals that they’re voting for and understand their records,” said Perez.

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