Race for Parker County judge raises ethical questions

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by CASEY NORTON

WFAA

Posted on May 24, 2012 at 11:25 PM

PARKER COUNTY - Campaign fliers are stirring up trouble in the Parker County race for district judge. The political literature has upset the county sheriff and put the sitting judge under a microscope.

Judge Trey Loftin is making his first run for office, trying to keep the post he was appointed to in 2010. This week, he sent out fliers that carried the seal of approval from popular Parker County Sheriff Larry Fowler.

The sheriff responded by calling landlines in the county with a recorded message that told voters, “I did not endorse Trey Loftin. I did not authorize the Loftin campaign to use my name or my photograph in this mailer.”

Fowler told News 8, the recorded statement would stand for itself, and he would offer no further comment on the matter.

Loftin said he quoted a speech Fowler made months ago at a campaign fundraiser. He said he asked Fowler for permission to quote the speech, but he only assumed he could use a picture of the sheriff.

A second flier appears to point out Judge Loftin's ruling in a gas drilling case between Range Resources and landowners who claimed fracking polluted their water wells. Loftin ruled video that showed water hose spewing flames was "deceptive evidence."

The flier says, "Obama's EPA backed down only after Judge Trey Loftin ruled[...]"

Legal experts say the wording raises the question of judicial prejudice. If attorneys chose to, they could pursue a possible appeal or dismissal of Loftin's rulings.

Dr. Tom Marshall, a political science professor at UT Arlington with a background in campaign and judiciary ethics, said recent Supreme Court rulings allow judges to make political statements, but an comments on an on-going case would be questionable.

He said the landowners in this particular case could pursue complaints with the state or appeals.

Judge Loftin would not go on camera with News 8. He said any comments about a pending case would be a violation of judicial conduct.

His campaign manager, Craig Murphy, told News 8 the flier was thoroughly vetted. He said it only refers to articles about the EPA's reaction to the Range Resources case, not the case itself.

When asked if the wording pushes the boundaries, Murphy said, "Either it's legal or it's not, and this is legal."

Attorney Craig Towson is running against Loftin in the Republican primary. There is not a Democrat in the race, so either Loftin or Towson will win the post of the 43rd District Court.

Towson said he made sure all of his fliers complied with state laws for judicial races. He was surprised when he saw Loftin's mailer.

"That's where problems can start to occur, if we're commenting about cases that are pending in the courtroom," Towson said.

The State Commission on Judicial Conduct was asked about the case. Executive Director Seana Willing told News 8, the commission cannot reveal whether an investigation may be underway.

Willing said judges have been investigated in the past, but she recalled that the cases predate several Supreme Court rulings that allow judges to give their opinions on legal matters.

E-mail cnorton@wfaa.com

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