DALLAS — A group of lawyers has accused a Dallas County judge of forcing a staff member to impersonate her during an online court proceeding in August.
The Dallas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association filed a complaint in late November to the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, alleging that Amber Givens, the presiding judge of the 282nd Judicial District Court, had her court coordinator illegally conduct a court hearing in her stead.
Givens denied the allegations in a statement provided to WFAA, saying "these claims are unsubstantiated" and that it is a "false narrative."
It is the latest of four complaints filed against Givens, all relating to her online behavior and actions during court proceedings since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
In a Nov. 16 email obtained by WFAA through an open records request, Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot told Givens that he intended to "open a criminal investigation" into the accusations. Creuzot’s email came in response to an Oct. 22 email Givens had sent him that said one of Creuzot’s prosecutors was falsely accusing her of courtroom improprieties.
Creuzot declined to comment on any investigation plans when contacted by WFAA.
In Texas, impersonating a public servant is a third-degree felony under the penal code.
"I haven’t chalked the matter up to one particular thing, but it could range from a is understanding to a malicious allegation," Givens also said in her statement to WFAA.
The Aug. 3 proceeding in question was related to reducing the bail for Floyd Lee, who was in jail for allegedly violating his probation in a burglary case. The proceeding was conducted via Zoom, and a picture of Givens was shown instead of her being live in the video, according to Amanda Branan, president of the Dallas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, which filed the complaint.
During the hearing, a voice addressed the virtual court and brought it to order by calling it "on the record." The defendant and defense counsel then both addressed the voice as "your honor" and "judge." Neither were corrected, according to the grievance filed against Givens.
On the call, Lee's bail was reduced from $100,000 to $25,000, and he was required to wear an electronic monitor once released from jail.
Per the grievance, after the hearing, the prosecutor reported to his supervisor that they did not believe it was Givens -- but rather her court coordinator Arceola Warfield -- who spoke, reduced the bail and conducted the hearing.
The prosecutor's supervisor then notified the defense attorney of this belief, according to the grievance, which also said that the supervisor spoke with two probation officers and, while doing so, saw a note in the probation file that said, "Judge was not present for the hearing."
The grievance also noted that the supervisor later tried to discuss the case with the same pair of probation officers, but that they had since been told by their supervisor not to talk about the case unless subpoenaed.
The Dallas County District Attorney’s Office then requested a transcript of the hearing -- but, per the grievance, the court reporter told them the proceeding was not on the record.
"Judge Amber Given actively controls most aspects of her docket," Branan further said in the grievance. "We do not believe that [Givens'] coordinator acted independently but rather at the explicit direction of Judge Givens. By requesting or ordering Ms. Warfield to conduct a hearing in her absence, Judge Givens not only violated her ethical duties but also facilitated a criminal offense."
In a statement provided to WFAA, Givens said that she was "unable to directly log onto Zoom because I had technical difficulties with the Zoom app."
She said she provided her login credentials to her court coordinator due to those complications.
"My court coordinator placed me on speaker phone and I advised the parties that I would approve the agreement and to make sure that the defendant received the conditions of bond," Givens said.
Givens added that since there was no contested issues, the proceeding was not an actual hearing, and no court reporter’s record was made.
The Dallas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association had previously filed three complaints against Givens in 2020.
All three issues were included in one filing sent to the State Commission on Judicial Conduct. All three involved virtual court proceedings.
The first complaint occurred on June 11, 2020, and it involved Givens allegedly "[staring down]" someone on the call while asking them to consider changing their tone when addressing the court. The grievance also referenced Facebook comments Givens made about the proceeding, and additional posts about it that she reacted to with the "loves" option.
The second complaint happened on June 17, 2020, and involved Givens allegedly herself talking in a "belittling and condescending tone."
The third complaint happened on July 9, 2020, and it alleged that Givens "[made] a conspicuous facial expression" towards a defense attorney -- a look the grievance took to mean as Givens "either mocking him or indicating that she does not believe him."
There is no guarantee that anything will come of the complaints.
Givens currently has the lowest score among criminal court judges in Dallas County who handle felony cases, according to a 2021 DCDLA Judicial Poll from 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.
In her statement to WFAA, Givens said that the grievances filed against her are "motivated to suppress the will of the community and to pressure me to discontinue the progress we are making toward change in the court system. I was elected to serve the people of Dallas County, TX and I will not fold under misinformation. I remain committed to the administration of justice."
Givens has served as the judge of the 282nd Judicial District Court since 2015, and is up for re-election in 2022.
No one has yet filed to oppose her in the election. The filing deadline is Dec. 13.