On terrible judicial optics

Over the weekend, Texas state judge Sarah Eckhardt was forced to apologize after a reporter caught her publicly mocking the disability of the state’s governor, Greg Abbott. Eckhardt made her comment while participating on a panel at the Texas Tribune Festival in Austin. The Federalist reports:

At a panel on leftist activism in cities, Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt was railing against the Texas legislature, complaining about how the state is constantly thwarting municipal policy. The Republicans running state government, she said, just want to stop whatever good things the cities are doing—whether it’s plastic bag bans, fracking bans, even local tree ordinances!

Then she said, “Governor Abbott hates trees because one fell on him.” The crowd laughed.

As all Texans know, Abbott was paralyzed from the waist down at age 26 when a tree fell on him while he was jogging on a windy day in Houston in 1984. He has used a wheelchair ever since.

Eckhardt’s comment was incredibly crude, even by our low modern standards, and she was right to apologize. But what was she doing at the Tribune Festival in the first place? It is an environment steeped in rough-and-tumble politics: this year’s speakers included Nancy Pelosi, Ted Cruz, Susan Rice, Julian Castro, and Anthony Scaramucci, among others. The panel on which Judge Eckhardt participated was entitled “Civic Enragement” and its description read: “How progressive politics are turning citizens into warriors and cities into battlegrounds.” Her co-panelists were all politicians; the moderator, a columnist for Vox.

This is no place for a judge to be. Of course, judges have their own political leanings, and in Texas they wear their party affiliations on their sleeves. But what message does it send to the public when a judge so plainly aligns herself with partisan politics and partisan ideology? How could anyone who openly disagrees with her politics ever hope to get a fair hearing in her courtroom? Even leaving aside her sophomoric joke about the governor, Judge Eckhardt has permanently stained any chance to build a reputation as an impartial jurist.

Judges have to make sacrifices when they don the robe, including avoiding activities that they might otherwise enjoy. This is not always fair, but it is necessary, as this sorry episode makes clear.

One thought on “On terrible judicial optics”

  1. Absolutely so. One judge, should stay away from such political or alike gatherings or events. You are totally right.

    Just worth to note, that her apology, was really and conclusively expressing the unfortunate wording chosen. No discount !! I couldn’t find the slightest hesitation, but complete regret ( although it seems that the tweet is cut ) here I quote :

    ” In my panel today at the Texas Tribune Festival on ” Public Enragement ” I spoke about the importance of being able to disagree without being disagreeable. Then I said something disagreeable. I want to apologize to Governor Abbott. I made a flippant comment that was inappropriate. The commend did nothing to further the debate I was participating in, much less further the political discourse in our community, state, and nation. While the Governor and I disagree on a number of issues, that is no excuse…….

    End of quotation:

    So, not only conclusive one. But, taking responsibility in the plain meaning of it.For, she provided, extra explanation, conceptual one, ideological one, explaining, what was wrong in it ( didn’t contribute nothing to public debate). That wasn’t mere lips service. But, taken further, out of her own initiative. Almost complete repentance it seems.

    It doesn’t end so always. Many others, twist all over, in order, to present justified angels for such comments. But that is not what she did it seems.



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