Two former members of the state’s disciplinary board for judges claim Gov. Greg Abbott ousted them for initially voting to sanction a Waco judge who refused to officiate same-sex weddings, the Houston Chronicle first reported Thursday.
Abbott appointed Amy Suhl, a retired technology executive, and Maricela Alvarado, a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army, to the commission in June 2018 for terms set to expire in 2023. But in a highly unusual move, the governor’s office ultimately excluded them from a list of appointees up for confirmation from the Texas Senate, effectively axing them from the agency.
The appointees told the Chronicle the governor’s office claimed he had “decided to go in a different direction,” but they believe they were ousted because they had favored penalizing Judge Dianne Hensley, who has publicly stated that she only officiates marriages between men and women. Earlier this week, the commission announced it had voted to publicly warn Hensley, a relatively light punishment. The commission has the power to suspend judges.
“What the governor’s doing is wrong,” Suhl told The Texas Tribune on Thursday. “They’re not supposed to be trying to coerce people to vote a certain way. It’s just not right.”
Suhl told the Tribune she met with members of the governor’s staff in February and heard from his office again via phone in April, shortly before she learned that the governor would not ask the Senate to confirm her. In those conversations, she recalled, she was never explicitly directed to change her position in the Hensley case, but she was peppered with questions about upcoming cases and asked whether she had any questions about how to decide her vote.
“I said I wasn’t going to violate my oath by talking about upcoming cases,” Suhl said. She recalled telling them, “I follow the law, and I do what’s right or wrong, and I listen to the facts.”
Suhl shared with the Chronicle secret recordings of her interactions with Abbott’s staff, who could be heard encouraging her to prioritize the governor’s viewpoint.
John Wittman, Abbott’s spokesman, said only that “all appointment decisions are made based solely on merit.”
Alvarado did not immediately return messages from the Tribune.
The case against Hensley dragged on for more than two years, an unusually long time for the agency, which is supposed to be independent from political influence.
Suhl said she thinks the governor likely learned about the board’s preliminary deliberation and votes from one of her fellow commissioners. Preliminary votes by the disciplinary board are confidential, including the actual vote tally, as are the identities of the commissioners who voted each way.
“I believe one of the commissioners violated the oath of office and told the governor,” she told the Tribune. “There was some type of breach.”
Suhl and Alvarado took a preliminary, unofficial vote to sanction Hensley in late 2018, they told the Chronicle. But in its final vote in October 2019 — without Suhl and Alvarado — the board handed down just a warning.
The commission, which meets several times a year, is composed of five gubernatorial appointees, six judges appointed by members of the Texas Supreme Court and two lawyers appointed by the State Bar of Texas.
Years ago, after declining to hear a case on spousal benefits for same-sex couples, the Texas Supreme Court reversed course amid pressure from GOP leaders, including Abbott. The court ultimately threw out a lower court ruling that had extended spousal benefits to same-sex couples.
Democrats condemned the governor.
“Appointees swear an oath to serve the people of Texas, not any politician or political party,” said Manny Garcia, executive director of the Texas Democratic Party. “From Donald Trump to Greg Abbott to Dennis Bonnen, Republicans are deploying Trump-style mafia politics and the consequences are dire.”