'Court cannot sit idly by' when judge turns 'court of law into a Skinner Box': Texas appeal opinion

'Court cannot sit idly by' when judge turns 'court of law into a Skinner Box': Texas appeal opinion
WhisperToMe / Wikimedia Commons

It took five years for the Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct to issue a public warning to a judge who ordered a defendant, on three occasions, to be shocked with a stun cuff during his criminal trial. The order to place the cuff came after the defendant's "disruptive conduct" led bailiffs and the judge to believe he was a security threat.

Terry Lee Morris was accused of soliciting a sexual performance from a 15-year-old girl, and his trial played out in 2016 in the courtroom of State District Judge George Gallagher, The Washington Post reported. The newspaper reported that Gallagher's order hurt and scared Morris so much that he didn't attend the rest of his trial and skipped nearly all of his sentencing hearing. The Texas Eighth Court of Appeals in El Paso ended up throwing out Morris' conviction because his constitutional right to be present for his trial was violated.

"While the trial court's frustration with an obstreperous defendant is understandable, the judge's disproportionate response is not," Justice Yvonne Rodriguez said in the court opinion the Post obtained. "We do not believe that trial judges can use stun belts to enforce decorum. A stun belt is a device meant to ensure physical safety; it is not an operant conditioning collar meant to punish a defendant until he obeys a judge's whim. This Court cannot sit idly by and say nothing when a judge turns a court of law into a Skinner Box, electrocuting a defendant until he provides the judge with behavior he likes."

In a judicial conduct decision journalist Keri Blakinger tweeted on Sunday, the conduct commission determined Gallagher "should be publicly warned for engaging in willful conduct that cast public discredit upon the judiciary and the administration of justice" in violation of the Texas Constitution "when he ordered the activation of Mr. Morris' stun cuff which resulted in injury to Mr. Morris and his absence from the remainder of the guilt-innocence phase of his own criminal trial." The commission says its action was taken "in a continuing effort to protect the public and promote public confidence in the judicial system."

The commission laid out in its findings of fact that a stun cuff was placed on Morris' ankle at the recommendation of Gallagher's bailiffs, "who believed the defendant posed a security risk based on his disruptive conduct during previous court appearances and while in custody." Gallagher ordered Morris to be shocked during the trial but "outside the presence of the jury," the commission found. Gallagher ordered the shocking in response to Morris "moving around the end of the counsel table and into the well of the courtroom in a manner Judge Gallagher perceived to be a security threat." The commission found that "the trial court's record is devoid of any description of a security threat."

Dallas Morning News writer Jacquielynn Floyd pointed out in an op-ed that Morris was no blameless man. "Being a trial judge would probably be more agreeable work were it not for defendants like Terry Lee Morris—obnoxious, disruptive, bent on turning the courtroom into a reality TV free-for-all with himself as the star," Floyd wrote. "This guy, as the saying goes, would have tested the patience of a saint." Even Morris' attorney, Bill Ray, told Texas Lawyer he didn't object to the court using a stun belt because his client was acting "like a loaded cannon ready to go off."

However, the thing with constitutional rights is that they aren't granted dependent on the subject being a good person. "The trouble is, now Morris, previously a convicted pedophile sentenced to 60 years for sexting his ex-girlfriend's 15-year-old daughter, wins a get-out-of-jail card and a new trial," Floyd wrote.

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