A former secretary to a judge on Texas’ highest criminal court, a nine-member panel of Republicans, claims in a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday that she was fired for her Democratic-leaning political views.
In the lawsuit, first reported by the Austin American-Statesman, Olga Zuniga, a 14-year executive assistant on the court, claims that she heard “strong, positive feedback about her performance” until around the time of the 2016 election, when her boss, Judge Kevin Yeary, began to peruse her social media presence and express his disapproval “about some of her posts regarding political issues and his disagreement with her political views.”
Zuniga, who often supported Democratic candidates— against the strong conservative bent of the entire Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which has been dominated by Republicans judges for decades — had authored Facebook posts criticizing some Republican politicians and praising Democrats. Yeary, a Republican, “disapproved,” and “counseled” Zuniga about her public presence several times, the lawsuit claims.
That pattern continued until Oct. 11, 2017, the lawsuit claims, when Yeary terminated her employment at a meeting where he “specifically raised Ms. Zuniga’s political Facebook posts and expressed his disapproval of them.” He took issue with posts Zuniga had authored criticizing Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, both Republicans, for their stance on immigration issues, the lawsuit claims. The only other problem Yeary identified, according to the suit, was that Zuniga had failed to record leave time on a timesheet when she left before 5 p.m., a charge she denies.
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Zuniga claims that the firing violates her constitutional free speech rights, especially given that she played no public role on the court and was not responsible for any legal decision-making.
Yeary was not immediately available to discuss the lawsuit Wednesday morning, according to his office, but Deana Williamson, the clerk of the court, said court personnel have “not seen it and do not know anything about it.”
A former defense attorney and assistant district attorney for Dallas County, Harris County and Bexar County, Yeary was first elected to the court in 2014, and will be up for re-election in 2020.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, along with its sister civil body, the Texas Supreme Court, has been dominated by Republican judges for decades. The nine judges on each courts run every six years in partisan elections, a system which has drawn criticism from both sides of the aisle.