DALLAS — Editor's note: This story was updated on Jan. 15 to include new court filings in the case
Court employees for the Dallas County judge who was accused by defense lawyers of having a staffer impersonate her during an online court proceeding have said in sworn affidavits that those claims are not true.
Judge Amber Givens and her attorneys said the allegations were the result of rumors and political motivations, as Givens is up for re-election this year and is facing two opponents in the March primary.
"These sworn statements from the people who were involved and who were in the best position to know what went on that day are very clear," Givens said in a statement to WFAA this week. "There was nothing out of the ordinary here, and I am proud that the truth is exposed. To make more of it than that is to pursue a false narrative based on unsubstantiated claims during the height of my re-election campaign."
The Dallas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association (DCDLA) made the allegations against Givens in a complaint filed with the State Commission on Judicial Conduct in late November.
This month, Amanda Branan, the president of the DCDLA, stood by the allegations in the complaint and denied that politics were involved.
"That could not be farther from the truth," Branan said. "This is because of the judge's actions. It happens to be on an election year. It can look like it is politically motivated, but this is solely based on the judge's actions."
Givens, the presiding judge of the 282nd Judicial Court, denied the allegations when they were first reported in December.
The complaint alleged that Givens had her court coordinator illegally conduct a court hearing in her place on Aug. 3.
But in sworn affidavits signed in December -- and obtained by WFAA in early January -- Givens' court coordinator, court reporter and bailiff all denied the allegations and said what they witnessed did not align with what the defense lawyers association's complaint portrayed.
Givens' attorneys on Jan. 11 filed a verified petition in civil court, seeking oral and videotaped depositions from Branan and Deandra Grant, who filed the complaint against Givens for the DCDLA. The petition also sought depositions from Teresa Hawthorne, an opponent of Givens in the March primary and who was endorsed by Grant on social media.
Givens' attorneys filed the petition "to investigate potential claims against [Branan, Grant and Hawthorne] for defamation and related causes of action," according to the petition. A hearing on the petition is scheduled for Feb. 3.
The DCDLA accused Givens' court coordinator, Arceola Warfield, of impersonating Givens during a court proceeding that was held over Zoom on Aug. 3.
The allegations against Givens claimed that only her picture -- not a live video -- appeared on the Zoom call and that the voice conducting the court proceeding came from Warfield, not Givens.
Defense attorney Tim Jeffrey and prosecutor Eduardo Carranza both reported the allegations, according to the DCDLA complaint. Also, two probation officers, Amanda Kent and Erin Barron, noted in their file that the judge "was not present for the hearing."
"A video of whoever was conducting the hearing did not appear, only the audio," Jeffrey wrote in an affidavit. "The audio was a female who I knew was not Judge Givens."
But Givens' staffers, in their affidavits, denied that Warfield impersonated Givens and said Givens was participating on the call over the phone due to technical difficulties.
Givens said she was unable to "directly log onto Zoom because I had technical difficulties with the Zoom app."
Givens, when contacted by WFAA, denied the allegations, calling the claims "unsubstantiated" and a "false narrative."
In a Nov. 16 email obtained by WFAA through an open records request, District Attorney John Creuzot told Givens that he planned to "open a criminal conversation" into the accusations. Givens had notified him that she claimed a prosecutor was falsely accusing her.
Creuzot declined to comment on if any investigations were being made.
What court staffers said
Warfield gave her account of the Aug. 3 proceeding, which centered on a bond reduction for Floyd Aaron, a defendant who was accused of violating his parole on a burglary charge.
Warfield said Givens had called her that morning and told her she was unable to directly log into Zoom for that day's proceedings. To avoid a delay, Warfield said, Givens asked her to use the judge's Zoom login credentials to start the call.
Givens told Warfield to tell anyone on the call about the judge's technical difficulties, and Warfield said she did. At one point during the proceeding, an attorney referred to Warfield as "Judge," and Warfield said she corrected the attorney.
"No, this is Arce," Warfield told the attorney, according to her affidavit.
The complaint from the defense lawyers association alleged that the person who was referred to as "judge" and "your honor" did not correct anyone on the call.
When Aaron's attorneys and prosecutors agreed on a bond reduction, Warfield said she told Givens and also gave the judge a copy of Aaron's probation paperwork.
Warfield said she then connected Givens to the Zoom call by speakerphone, and Givens told both sides that she accepted their agreed bond reduction.
Givens then told the attorneys that Warfield would read them the bond conditions and that she (the judge) was leaving the call, Warfield wrote in her affidavit.
Before reading the bond conditions, Warfield said she jokingly told Lisa Jackson, the court reporter, to "go on the record."
"This was a joke because I said it after Judge Givens told the parties she was getting off the call," Warfield said in her affidavit. "I recall that several people in attendance on the Zoom call laughed in response."
Jackson wrote in her affidavit that attendees on the Zoom call "recognized this statement as a joke and laughed in response."
Jackson said Warfield read the bond conditions, and then told Aaron and his attorney that they would meet in the courtroom with the paperwork for the bond conditions.
"At no time did Ms. Warfield pretend to be Judge Givens," Jackson wrote. "Ms. Warfield's voice is noticeably distinct from Judge Givens' voice, and Ms. Warfield did not alter her voice in any way to sound like Judge Givens or otherwise pretend to be Judge Givens."
Deputy Kenneth J. Brame, the court bailiff, also gave his account of what happened in an affidavit.
Brame said he heard Warfield tell the Zoom participants that Givens was having technical difficulties and would participate over the phone.
Brame said Givens told the court that she wanted to move forward with the hearing to prevent the defendant, Aaron, from serving unnecessary jail time.
In his affidavit, Brame recounted how the hearing unfolded over Zoom, with Givens on the phone. Givens granted the agreed bond reduction between Aaron's attorneys, and prosecutors and ordered a GPS monitor for Aaron.
Givens then told the court that Warfield, who was in the courtroom, would read the bond conditions, Brame said.
Brame wrote in the affidavit that Givens and Warfield "do not sound alike, and their voices are clearly distinct."
Brame also said that when an attorney inadvertently addressed Warfield as Judge Givens, Warfield immediately corrected the attorney, saying at least twice, "This is not Judge Givens. This is Arce the coordinator."
Previous complaints against judge
The impersonation allegations aren't the first time the Dallas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association brought up an issue with Givens.
The group filed three complaints against Givens in 2020 -- all three involving virtual court proceedings in June of that year.
The first complaint involved Givens allegedly "[staring down]" someone on the call while asking them to consider changing their tone on the call. The second complaint accused Givens of talking in a "belittling and condescending tone." The third complaint alleged that Givens "[made] a conspicuous facial expression" toward a defense attorney, accusing Givens of "mocking him or indicating that she does not believe him."
The State Commission on Judicial Conduct has not ruled on the complaints.
Givens had the lowest score among criminal court judges in Dallas County who handle felony cases, according to a poll released in November by the Dallas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association.
Out of a possible 30 points awarded by the anonymous poll, Givens scored a 9.6. The next lowest score was an 18.1.
For the impersonation allegations, Givens' attorneys are seeking a retraction from Amanda Branan, the president of the DCDLA, and Deandra Grant, president-elect of the DCDLA, who filed the complaint against Givens.
In a demand letter to Grant and Branan on Dec. 23, attorney Angela Zambrano, who is representing Givens, included an alleged social media post from Grant from August, quoting her as saying "we have a HORRIBLE judge in Dallas County that needs to be defeated in the Dem Primary."
Grant then endorsed Teresa Hawthorne to replace Givens, according to the letter. Andy Chatham, who was previously the judge for the 282nd Court but lost re-election in 2014, is also running against Givens.
The DCDLA has not endorsed a candidate in the race.
Givens' attorneys obtained sworn affidavits "to make it very clear that the gossip is directly refuted by sworn testimony from people who were in the virtual room for the proceeding," said Zambrano. "The point is, we have rumors and gossip on one side and sworn testimony that directly contradicts that gossip on the other."
Attorney Nicole Knox, who is also representing Givens, called the impersonation allegations "a political hit job."
"What I'm not OK with is to have an incumbent judge's reputation and demeanor completely demolished by what is essentially gossip," Knox said.