Appointees claim Gov. Greg Abbott ousted them from board for voting to sanction judge who refused to perform gay marriages: report

Gov. Greg Abbott during the Texas Fallen Heroes Memorial Ceremony on May 25, 2019 Marjorie Kamys Cotera for The Texas Tribune

Two former members of the state’s disciplinary board for judges claim they were ousted by Gov. Greg Abbott for initially voting to sanction a Waco judge who refused to officiate same-sex weddings, according to the Houston Chronicle.

Abbott appointed Amy Suhl, a retired technology executive, and Maricela Alvarado, a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army, to the commission in June 2018 for a term that was set to expire in 2023. But in a highly unusual move, the governor’s office ultimately excluded them from a list of appointees seeking confirmation from the Texas Senate, effectively axing them from the agency.

The appointees told the Chronicle the governor’s office claimed he had “decided to go in a different direction,” but they believe they were ousted because they had voted to penalize Judge Dianne Hensley, who has publicly stated that she officiates heterosexual marriages but not homosexual ones. Earlier this week, the commission announced it had voted to publicly warn Hensley — one of the lightest punishments the agency has available to it. The commission has the power to suspend judges.

Suhl shared with the Chronicle secret recordings of her interactions with Abbott’s staff, who were heard encouraging her to prioritize the governor’s viewpoint.

John Wittman, Abbott’s spokesman, said only that “All appointment decisions are made based solely on merit.”

Neither Suhl nor Alvarado immediately returned messages from the Tribune.

The case against Hensely dragged on for more than two years, an unusually long time for the agency, which is supposed to be independent from political influence.

It’s not clear how the governor’s office would have learned which members of the commission had voted to sanction Hensley before the resolution became public this month. Preliminary votes by the disciplinary board are confidential, including the actual vote tally, as well as the identities of the commissioners who voted each way.

Suhl and Alvarado took a preliminary, unofficial vote to sanction Hensley in late 2018, they told the Chronicle. But in its final vote in October 2019 — without Suhl and Alvarado — the board handed down just a warning.

Years ago, after declining to hear a case on spousal benefits for same-sex couples, the Texas Supreme Court reversed course amid pressure from GOP leaders, including Gov. Greg Abbott. The court ultimately threw out a lower court ruling that had extended spousal benefits to same-sex couples.

The commission, which meets several times a year, is composed of gubernatorial appointees, judges appointed by members of the Texas Supreme Court, and two lawyers appointed by the State Bar of Texas.

Democrats condemned the governor.

"Governor Abbott's appointees swear an oath to serve the people of Texas, not to parrot the Governor’s views,” said state Rep. Chris Turner, chair of the House Democratic Caucus. “Governor Abbott’s apparent decision to rescind appointments because his appointees were unwilling to condone a judge engaging in official acts of discrimination is a sad relic from another era.”

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