Like most events inside the old courthouse in Livingston, Texas, population 5,238, the felony child abuse proceedings on August 8, 2012, involved a cast of legal professionals who knew each other well. State District Judge Elizabeth Coker, a third generation jurist with deep roots in the rolling farmland of East Texas, presided. David Wells, an investigator in the district attorney’s office shared a yellow legal pad with the prosecutor, Beverly Armstrong. Another prosecutor, Kaycee Jones, was there just to observe. But at one point, her phone buzzed and she reached over to scribble a note on her colleagues’ paper. “Judge says…,” it started. And so began the trouble.
Criminal defense attorneys often grumble that judges favor the prosecution. Substantiating such suspicions is usually impossible. But in Coker’s case, it apparently wasn’t all that hard. After a 14-month investigation by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, Coker stepped down from the bench last week, rebaptized in the local headlines as the “Texting Judge” and making news far beyond the hushed hallways of the three small town courthouses where she served.
Jones, the prosecutor who transcribed the text, is also under fire. In January, Coker welcomed the newly elected Republican to the bench—the three counties are served by just two district judges—swearing her in and helping her don her black robes. In a letter sent to the Office of the Chief Disciplinary Counsel for the State Bar of Texas, Jones later said she “deeply regretted her actions in passing on the judge’s text message and added: It was wrong and I knew better.” The State Bar has a March hearing scheduled to look at complaints about her actions.
The pleasant countryside around the small towns where the tale of the texting Texas judge began belies the turbulent political climate surrounding the whole affair. Newcomers, many of them retirees from nearby Houston, have changed the political map from yellow dog Democrat to deep red Republican. In 2006, San Jacinto County was embroiled in a McCoy-Hatfield political feud between what the Texas Observer called the old guard versus the new. It was a fight less about ideology than political power.
Full scale feuding had begun when new guard Democrats joined with the first Republican district attorney in San Jacinto County in what they cast as as a campaign to root out political corruption. The first target was was an old guard Democratic county commissioner who had used county equipment to build a road on his land — not an unheard of thing in rural Texas counties. (There is an old Texas joke about the county judge who said: “Re-elect me ‘cos you’ve already built the road to my ranch.”) But the feud spiraled into full-scale war involving everything from federal lawsuits, the Texas Rangers, and pornography found or planted, depending on which side of the struggle you were on, on the county judge’s computer. Coker, a Democrat, was part of the old guard and presided over a grand jury that indicted some of the players in the political faceoff. (Most were exonerated.)
Despite the political turmoil, Coker seemed secure in her position. She served as president and later a board member of the alumni association at Baylor, her alma mater. Coker and her husband, Trinity County Judge Mark Evans, also a scion of an old political family and the son of a sheriff, were fixtures at chamber of commerce banquets and VFW Post picnics.
In 2007, a Hollywood production company announced that it was developing a reality series around the power couple: ”Two legal minds are better than one as Judge Mark Evans and his wife Judge Elizabeth Coker bring their home life to the bench on ‘Relative Justice,’ a relationship-themed twist on the family court show genre,” a company press release announced. The show never made it to TV, but Coker was more than popular than ever back home. She had handily won re-election in 2006 to her third four year term and won again, running unopposed for a fourth term in 2010.
But things change fast. In April of this year, Coker left the party of her forefathers and joined Jones in the GOP. ”I walked in here tonight with the same values, principles and faith that I shall leave with” Coker told the Polk County Republican Club, according to the local newspaper, The Trinity Standard. “Our conservative way of life here in East Texas is most reflected by the Republican Party: the importance of family, service to our country and praying for strength and guidance,” she said. She never gave a reason for the switch, though state government is dominated by Republicans and her once-Democratic district was trending toward the GOP.
Did the political feuding and shifting alliances contribute to Coker’s downfall? There are courthouse whispers and charges flying to and fro in local letters to the editor, but no one is talking on the record. A few weeks after she switched parties, a prominent Houston Democratic state legislator filed papers calling for her impeachment, but the effort went nowhere in the Republican-dominated legislature. This month, the judicial commission, its members appointed by the Texas Supreme Court, the State Bar and the Governor, issued the agreement for Coker’s resignation.
Coker declined to be interviewed for this story. But in a statement on October 21, the day she handed in her resignation to the governor’s office, she said was not admitting “guilt, fault or liability” by stepping down. “While I could have fought these allegations, it would have involved significant time, significant expense, and disruption to everyone involved. I did not feel that was in the best interests of the taxpayers, our court system, my family or myself,” she said. “My dad and grandfather taught me that judges have to be accountable for their actions and conduct. Resigning the bench as well as taking a voluntary leave of absence is the best way for me to take responsibility for this situation in a way that honors the office and serves the best interests of Polk, San Jacinto and Trinity counties.”
Reading between the lines of Coker’s statement and the agreement she signed with the judicial commission, there may be more trouble ahead. Not only did the commission investigate the allegations made by Wells, it also stated in the agreement that it had investigated claims that the judge “allegedly engaged in other ex parte communications and meetings” with prosecutors in two counties and with favored defense attorneys, and allegations that she showed bias in favor of certain attorneys in “both her judicial rulings and her court appointments.” The commission also investigated claims that the judge met with jurors “in an inappropriate manner…while they were deliberating in one or more criminal trials.”
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All that could lead to a wave of legal challenges in cases over which Coker presided. “I expect many writs of habeas corpus in other cases to be filed based on her behavior in this case,” says Mark Bennett, a Houston criminal defense attorney and former president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association. “Whether any of them will succeed, I don’t know.”
The commission also expressed “concerns” about Coker’s attempts to influence a witness called before the commission, saying the “judge may not have been candid and truthful in her testimony before the Commission when questioned about her contact with the witness.” The commission’s “very strong” language, Bennett says, could indicate that Coker’s law license might be in jeopardy because of her alleged attempts to influence testimony before the state’s judicial ethics body.
Regardless of whether she’s disbarred or the degree to which politics have colored the tale, Coker wrote the opening chapter: a simple 27-word text, typed in an old county courthouse, a message that ended a judicial career and cast a long shadow in East Texas.