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2014-10-16

City finds 'no judicial misconduct'

By Judith Pannebaker BCC Editor

City of Bandera Municipal Judge Frances Kaiser found herself in hot water recently primarily as a result of a method of selecting a jury pool for a trial on a traffic matter.
However, after an extensive investigation, City Administrator Lamar Schulz, working under the direction and guidance of city attorneys, and in consultation with attorneys with the Texas Municipal Courts Education Center, subsequently cleared Kaiser of any judicial misconduct or wrongdoing.
"I requested the investigation," Kaiser said during an interview on Friday, Oct. 7. "I wanted this thing investigated to the hilt and I wanted to get to the bottom of it. My reputation was on the line. I was shocked by Ms. Phipp's allegations of misconduct." During her long career in public service, Kaiser has also served as Kerr County Sheriff and Bandera County Precinct 3 Justice of the Peace.
The brouhaha came about in August after former Municipal Clerk Laura Phipps accused Kaiser of manipulating a potential jury pool. After receiving a list of names from the city utility department, Kaiser said, "I highlighted the names randomly and methodically. I didn't know anyone living in the city. However, Ms. Phipps called it jury tampering." The names of city residents who were highlighted would receive jury summonses, Kaiser explained. However, the trial in question was eventually continued.
Phipps complained to city officials and also, in a series of emails, referred to a complaint she had purportedly filed with the State Commission on Judicial Conduct. However, that action could not be substantiated. Schulz has had no communication from the commission that oversees judicial conduct.
After a meeting that included Kaiser, Schulz, Councilman Jim Hannah and, for a time, Mayor Don Clark, Kaiser resumed her judicial duties. At that point, Phipps asked to be placed on administrative leave, and later requested that her salary be paid retroactively.
According to Schulz, after being given unpaid administrative leave, Phipps resigned on Sept. 8. At that time, Phipps had worked for the city less than four months, Kaiser said.
Under the Open Records Act, the Courier learned that Phipps had not only raised concerns about the jury selection process, but she had also accused Kaiser of speaking to a potential juror about a case, requesting that items be deleted from the jury summons form and not utilizing a notarized jury summons document. Phipps also accused Kaiser of creating a "fear-induced hostile (work) environment."
"When I learned about all the things Ms. Phipps was accusing me of, you could have blown me over with a feather," Kaiser said.
In the information the Courier received as a result of the Open Records request, one potential juror admitted to speaking to Kaiser about the case. As the juror noted: "My question was about how long jury duty would last as I had plans to go out of town that weekend. Ms. Kaiser did not discuss the case with me."
Both Schulz and Kaiser conferred with Ryan Turner, who serves as general counsel and director of education for the Texas Municipal Courts Education Center. While Turner did not have the authority to exonerate Kaiser's actions, he stated to the Courier in an email: "Although I have no first-hand knowledge as to what is purported to have occurred in Bandera, Texas law authorizes municipal judges to order that a jury be summoned when a defendant does not waive their right to trial by jury. Unlike in other Texas trial courts, a juror in a municipal court proceeding must be a resident of the municipality. How cities go about procuring municipal court juries vary."
And, according to Turner, one procurement method, among several, includes using a municipality's utility customer list.
For his part, Schulz was pleased with the outcome of the investigation and continues to have full confidence in Kaiser. "The incident has made us stronger. We have reviewed previous policies and have made positive changes based on the information we received from the training center," he said. "There are good, better and best ways of doing anything and I think we've gotten to a better way of dealing with various situations without spending a lot of money."
As an example, Schulz referenced the recent blind drawing of names for a jury pool. "I still don't know the names of the citizens I drew," he said. "And, that's an excellent thing."