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Complaint: Judge's Death Penalty Remarks Show Racial Bias

Civil rights groups and ethicists allege that 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Edith Jones violated judicial codes of conduct during a February speech in which she reportedly said some minority groups are "predisposed to crime."

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A federal appellate judge from Texas is facing a judicial misconduct complaint over comments she made regarding race and the death penalty during a speech. 

According to a complaint filed Tuesday by civil rights groups, ethicists and a legal aid organization, 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Edith Jones allegedly said during a February event at the University of Pennsylvania Law School that “racial groups like African-Americans and Hispanics are predisposed to crime,” and that they get involved in more violent and “heinous” crimes than people of other ethnicities.

A staff member reached by phone at Jones' office said the judge would not make any comments about the complaint. No audio recording of the speech is available.  

Jones, a former chief judge of the New Orleans-based appeals court who practiced in Houston before her 1985 appointment to the federal bench, wrote the court's opinion last year that allowed the Texas sonogram law to stand. 

At the February event, she also reportedly said that Mexican nationals would rather be in a Texas prison than in a prison in their home country. The complaint also takes issue with comments the judge reportedly made criticizing the U.S. Supreme Court’s prohibition on executing the mentally retarded.

“Judge Jones’ biased remarks demonstrated both an utter disregard for the fundamental judicial standard of impartiality and a lack of judicial temperament,” the complaint argues.

Among those who filed the complaint are the NAACP, the Texas Civil Rights Project and the Mexican Capital Legal Assistance Program, which is funded by and represents Mexico in cases where its foreign nationals face capital murder charges in the U.S. It was filed with the 5th Circuit Court’s chief judge, who would decide whether to refer the case to a judicial council made up of 5th Circuit and district court judges. Because Jones is a former chief judge of the 5th Circuit, the group asked that its complaint be transferred to another circuit court for review.

In affidavits filed with the court, people who attended the event where Jones spoke said she denied the existence of systemic racism in the application of the death penalty. They said she contended that more Hispanics and African-Americans are on death row because people “from these racial groups get involved in more violent crime.”

The complaint indicates that Jones also told the audience that exempting the mentally retarded from the death penalty was a disservice. In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court — amid what Jones reportedly described as a “judicial law-making binge” — decided that the mentally retarded are not eligible for execution because their lack of intellectual ability renders them less culpable for the behavior. 

“I am not able to capture the complete outrage she expressed over the crimes or the disgust she evinced over the defenses raised,” Marc Bookman, a capital defense lawyer from Pennsylvania who attended the discussion, wrote in an affidavit. 

In remarks about foreign nationals on death row, the complaint states, Jones reportedly said that Mexicans would rather be in a U.S. prison than in one in their own country, where they would not be provided the same kind of legal protections.

Christina Swarns, director of the Criminal Justice Project of the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund Inc., who is also an attorney for African-American death row inmate Duane Buck, said in a press release that comments like the ones Jones reportedly made undermine the criminal justice system. Attorneys for Buck argue that his death sentence ought to be reversed because an expert used during his trial told jurors that a defendant who was black would pose an increased risk of future danger to society.

"Racial bias and stereotypes should not and must not be tolerated in our courtrooms, by our juries, or by our judges," she said.  

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Courts Criminal justice Death penalty