Cyberattack Slowed Texas Probes Into Judicial Conduct

By J. Edward Moreno
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Law360 (December 10, 2020, 10:15 PM EST) -- The commission in charge of disciplining Texas state judges was unable to investigate all claims of misconduct last fiscal year as a result of a "devastating" ransomware attack and the coronavirus pandemic.

According to the Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct's annual report for fiscal year 2020 published this week, the agency resolved 1,240 cases between Sept. 1, 2019, and Aug. 31, 2020, which was about 27% less than the previous year, due to a ransomware attack on their tech provider, the Texas Office of Court Administration.

This attack "severely limited the Commission's ability to access information and fully investigate complaints for a significant, extended time period," the report said.

When the attack happened, the OCA said in a May 8 statement that recovery could take up to several weeks. Public court records were unavailable on the court site for several days as a result of the attack, so the state Supreme Court resorted to Twitter and Dropbox to release its regular weekly opinions. 

The OCA added that no sensitive information was compromised and the office is "working to harden and enhance network security in response to the attack." State judiciary employees received training on cybersecurity practices, the OCA noted.

In total, the commission received 1,518 complaints, making their disposition rate 81.6%. In fiscal year 2019, the commission had a disposition rate of 92% and in fiscal year 2018 their disposition rate was 104%.

The commission was projected to receive about 2,000 complaints this past fiscal year and they received a fourth less than that. The commission attributes the smaller number of complaints to the lack of in-person proceedings this year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

In 2020, most judges were given private sanction versus a public sanction, a reversal from the past few years. The most common reason judges were disciplined was for failing to comply with the law, followed by incompetence and "willful or persistent conduct cast public discredit upon the judiciary."

More than half of the total complaints filed this past fiscal year were against state district judges, who only make up 11% of the judges under the commission's jurisdiction.

Commission Chairman David Hall, a judge in a multi-county court in west Texas, said in a statement in the report that judges' activity on social media has been a driving source of many disciplinary issues.

"First Amendment issues present the Commission and the entire judicial branch with an expansive ethical challenge in this age of social media," Hall said.

Commission Executive Director Jacqueline Habersham, who assumed the position in the last year, declined to comment.

--Additional reporting by Katie Buehler. Editing by Michael Watanabe.

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