A Waco judge received a public warning Wednesday after a state commission determined he showed bias favoring law enforcement by appointing a Waco police detective as foreman of a McLennan County grand jury in July 2015.
Judge Ralph Strother of 19th State District Court was issued a public warning by the 13-member State Commission on Judicial Conduct, which investigated the judge after a complaint was lodged by Austin attorney Millie Thompson, who was representing three bikers arrested in the deadly May 2015 Twin Peaks shootout.
Strother, McLennan County’s senior state district judge, declined comment on the warning Friday.
“I complained of several issues of bias related to the Twin Peaks cases, and this seemed to be the most minor one that they decided to warn him on,” Thompson said. “It is something. It is not what I hoped for, but it is something in the right direction.”
The warning does not require action by the judge, such as additional continuing education courses.
“The commission has taken this action with the intent of assisting Judge Strother in his continued judicial service, as well as in a continuing effort to protect public confidence in the judicial system and to assist the state’s judiciary in its efforts to embody the principles and values set forth in the Texas Constitution and the Texas Code of Judicial Conduct,” the warning states.
The day Strother appointed Waco police Detective James Head foreman of the grand jury was the first time that McLennan County used a new, random system to select grand jury members. Previously, judges appointed grand jury commissioners, who nominated prospective grand jury members.
Strother, explaining his appointment of Head that day, told the Tribune-Herald, “We have lawmen who get on jury panels all the time. Who is better qualified in criminal law than somebody who practices it all the time?”
The warning said Strother told the commission that he did not think appointing Head foreman was a conflict of interest, noting that the term of the grand jury on which Head served expired before prosecutors presented the Twin Peaks biker cases in November 2015.
Strother told the commission Head “would have never been on this or any other grand jury” if the prior system of appointing grand jury members was still in place. The judge assured the commission that the experience “has since caused me to exercise more caution and be more aware of potential problems,” according to the warning.
Strother told the commission he did not realize Head was a police officer until after he was sworn in. The judge said he appointed him presiding juror, adding he knew of no prohibition against an officer serving as either a grand juror or trial juror.
The warning states Strother said he did not ask if Head played any role in the Twin Peaks investigation.
“He stated, ‘in perfect hindsight, I wish he had not been on the grand jury,’ ” according to the commission warning.
The warning states the “relevant standards” the commission relied on from the Texas Code of Judicial Conduct in rendering its decision states: “A judge shall perform judicial duties without bias or prejudice.”
Two visiting judges removed Strother from presiding over two Twin Peaks cases in September 2017 after attorneys for the bikers filed recusal motions alleging Strother showed bias against their clients.
Eric Vinson, executive director of the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, said a public warning is the second-highest of six disciplinary measures the commission issues. He said the commission can issue public or private admonitions, public or private warnings or public or private reprimands. A public warning is just under a public reprimand in terms of seriousness, Vinson said.
Strother is eligible to appeal the public warning to a Special Court of Review comprised of three justices from the state’s intermediate appellate courts selected randomly by the Texas Supreme Court.
The 13-member commission is made up of judges appointed by the Texas Supreme Court, public members appointed by the governor and lawyers appointed by the State Bar of Texas, Vinson said.