By Michael V. Hannigan
The News Staff
In what could be his final action in the Henderson County nativity scene controversy, San Antonio atheist Patrick Greene filed a complaint this week to the State Commission on Judicial Conduct against County Judge Richard Sanders.
Greene stepped into the county’s ongoing nativity scene debate in February when he wrote all members of Commissioners’ Court, threatening a lawsuit if the display is not moved to private property.
Greene, who has a long history of church-state lawsuits, told The Malakoff News he was becoming involved “to show that Christianity does not rule my state of Texas, the Constitution does. Christianity is only one of the many faiths represented in this state.”
Greene is particularly upset with Pct. 1 Commissioner Joe Hall.
“(Hall) was by far the worst, because he was a county government official, whose job is to never take sides in matters of religion,” he said.
But because Greene is not a Henderson County resident, he said he has no recourse against Hall. So he mailed a complaint dated Feb. 25 to the Judicial Commission alleging Sanders “chose to take the side of Christians in the community in their fight to keep a Christian Christmas Nativity scene on display on the grounds of Henderson County Courthouse. He also failed to separate himself from the publicly televised sectarian comments of Henderson County Commissioner Joe Hall of Precinct 1.”
According to Greene, these actions violate the Judicial Code’s direction to not take actions “that cast ‘reasonable doubt’ on the judge’s ability to act impartially as a judge.”
“By refusing to take a neutral position in a sectarian issue, and to fail to publicly chastise Commissioner Hall in his comments as a standing county commissioner, which stated that ‘This is a Christian nation,’ Judge Sanders violated the Texas Code of Judicial Conduct,” Greene wrote in his complaint.
Greene originally wrote Sanders on Feb. 16, demanding the Judge remove Hall from office for his actions and threatening to file the complaint if Sanders didn’t comply.
Sanders did not reply to Greene’s email. County officials say that, because Greene threatened a lawsuit from the start, all interaction with him would have to go through County Attorney Clint Davis.
Davis said that the County Judge does not have the power to remove a commissioner from office. He also explained – and said he sent an email to Greene to explain – that the sections of the code cited in Greene’s complaint are for district judges, not county judges.
The Commission on Judicial Conduct is prohibited from commenting on complaints and cannot even verify that a complaint has been filed.
Retired District Judge Ron Chapman told The Malakoff News, “The vast majority of complaints are disposed of as unfounded.”
Chapman is backed up by the Commission on Judicial Conduct 2011 Annual Report, which lists just 42 disciplinary actions against judges, but 1,154 complaints dismissed.