It’s rotten luck that not only McLennan County Justice of the Peace Dianne Hensley but also the city of Waco — so earnestly striving to portray itself to tourists as an inviting, all-inclusive, non-judgmental community — now finds itself swept up in a tempest involving Gov. Greg Abbott. The Republican governor’s apparent behind-the-scenes political machinations now ensure that an embarrassment concerning Justice Hensley’s religious reservations about same-sex marriages will fester amid evidence of Abbott’s seeming intolerance, contempt for settled law, even corruption.
The Trib last week reported that the State Commission on Judicial Conduct has issued a warning to Justice Hensley regarding the inappropriate practice of officiating opposite-sex weddings but refusing the same service to same-sex couples. In doing so, the commission cited the Texas Code of Judicial Conduct: “A judge shall conduct all of the judge’s extra-judicial activities [such as performing wedding ceremonies] so that they do not cast reasonable doubt on the judge’s capacity to act impartially as a judge....” Put another way, a JP may harbor his or her biblical beliefs but must faithfully carry out the law of the land regardless and in a manner presumably sealed by the very oath of office he or she takes on the Bible.
Last week Hearst Newspapers reported that two members appointed by Abbott to the judicial conduct commission in 2018 — neither yet confirmed by the Legislature — saw their nominations pulled by the governor’s office ahead of confirmation. The two allege conversations with the governor’s office — some secretly recorded — indicate they were withdrawn because the two considered some sort of admonition regarding Justice Hensley’s practice of officiating only wedding ceremonies conforming to her personal religious beliefs.
Given that the Commission on Judicial Conduct is supposed to be independent of political influence and that deliberations are supposed to be intensely private, questions immediately arise: Is the governor’s alleged political meddling in commission business ethical, even a possible crime? And who on the commission leaked what are by law confidential, sensitive deliberations involving the reputations of state jurists? Especially disturbing: the reported comment by one of the governor’s political hacks to one of the canceled-out commissioners that gubernatorial appointees to the commission are “serving the governor, not themselves.” So much for the hackneyed idea of serving the public.
Stocking state boards, agencies and commissions with like-minded political appointees to obediently defy or resist settled law to the degree it might prompt legal action costing the state millions of dollars is surely idiotic, if not anarchic. Our nation’s highest court has settled the issue of same-sex marriage and is not likely to revisit it soon. As for Justice Hensley, she is best-served by consulting the training manual (endorsed by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals) that all JPs are expected to learn and heed, including this straightforward provision: “A justice of the peace has the choice to perform all marriage ceremonies or no marriage ceremonies but can’t discriminate by performing opposite-sex ceremonies and not same-sex ceremonies. In performing a marriage ceremony, a justice of the peace is a state actor, but does not have governmental or judicial immunity in a federal civil rights discrimination lawsuit.”