In a Dec. 4 opinion, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott concludes that Texas’ Sunset Advisory Commission staff is not entitled to access confidential records held by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct or to attend the SCJC’s confidential meetings or deliberations, unless the Legislature enacts a law establishing an exception to a constitutional provision that prevents such access.
State Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R- Angleton, chairman of the SAC, requested the opinion on May 31. According to the brief attached to Bonnen’s request for the opinion, during sunset review the SCJC refused to allow the SAC staff access to closed meetings or confidential records in disciplinary cases.
As noted in Opinion Number GA-0979, Texas Constitution Article V, §1-a makes confidential the papers filed with the SCJC along with the commission’s proceedings. The opinion also notes that Texas Government Code Chapter 33, which governs the SCJC’s conduct and operations, makes the proceedings and papers filed with the judicial conduct commission confidential — without exception — until formal charges are filed against a judge.
“A court could conclude that the Legislature has not authorized the staff of the Sunset Advisory Commission to review the confidential records, documents, and files of the State Commission on Judicial Conduct or to attend confidential meetings and deliberations of the State Commission on Judicial Conduct.,” according to the opinion.
Office of the Attorney General spokesman Jerry Strickland declines comment. “The opinion speaks for itself,” Strickland says.
In June, the SAC approved a recommendation for a statutory change requiring the SCJC, during sunset review, to provide the SAC staff access to closed meetings and confidential documents.
Ken Levine, the SAC’s director, and Seana Willing, the SCJC’s executive director, did not immediately return telephone calls for comment. Bonnen also did not return a telephone call.
-- Mary Alice Robbins
Robbins is an Austin-based freelance writer and a former Texas Lawyer senior reporter.
Editor's note: This blog has been updated to reflect the correct spelling of Ken Levine's name.