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Civil Rights Groups Appeal Dismissal of Ethics Complaint Against Judge Edith Jones

Jessica Mason Pieklo

A panel of federal appeals court judges found there was not enough evidence to prove Judge Edith Jones made improper discriminatory statements during a 2013 lecture.

A panel of federal judges in Washington D.C. dismissed an ethics complaint against Edith Jones of the conservative U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, finding there wasn’t enough evidence to conclude Jones had publicly made discriminatory statements and improperly discussed pending death penalty cases.

A coalition of civil rights organizations filed the misconduct complaint against Jones in June 2013 after Jones delivered a lecture at the University of Pennsylvania entitled “Federal Death Penalty Review.” During that lecture, Jones allegedly made a series of comments that demonstrated bias against minorities and individuals with disabilities.

Some of those comments included claims that certain “racial groups like African-Americans and Hispanics are predisposed to crime” and are “prone to commit acts of violence” including more violent and “heinous” crimes and that Mexicans would prefer to be on death row in the United States than serving prison terms in their native country, according to the complaint.

Jones allegedly accused defendants who raise claims of “mental retardation” of abusing the system and called claims the death penalty is racist or arbitrary a “red herring.”

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The complaint also alleged Jones improperly told another federal judge to “shut up” during a court hearing.

According to the panel of judges, however, even though Jones admitted to making many of the statements detailed in the ethics complaint, that conduct did not amount to judicial misconduct.

“It appears likely that Judge Jones did suggest that, statistically, African-Americans and/or Hispanics are ‘disproportionately’ involved in certain crimes and ‘disproportionately’ present in federal prisons,” the panel said. “But we must consider Judge Jones’ comments in the context of her express clarifications during the question-and-answer period that she did not mean that certain groups are ‘prone to commit’ such crimes. In that context, whether or not her statistical statements are accurate, or accurate only with caveats, they do not by themselves indicate racial bias or an inability to be impartial.”

The three-member panel concluded that the evidence showed Jones used the term “red herring” when expressing her view that a challenge to the death penalty on the ground that “it is administered in a racially discriminatory manner is nonviable.” In light of Supreme Court precedents, the panel concluded “we again cannot find that such a view indicates improper bias or misconduct.”

The panel of judges dismissed the complaint against Jones in August but did not make the order publicly available until Wednesday, and only after civil rights groups announced they were appealing the decision to the Judicial Conference of the United States.

The judges investigating the allegations against Jones failed to interview student witnesses and discounted affidavits filed shortly after Jones’ speech, according to the appeal.

“As throughout the Report, the purported ‘weighing of the evidence’ amounted to no more than accepting what Judge Jones said and rejecting all contradictory evidence,” the appeal states. “The Complainants’ sworn evidence made clear that Judge Jones’s remarks damaged attendees’ trust and confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary. If the situation is not corrected through the present appeal, many future litigants will have exactly the same reaction.”

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