Like most judges, Amber Givens moved much of her court’s business online as the pall of COVID-19 hung over Dallas in the summer of 2021. On August 3, what initially seemed like a routine Zoom meeting with lawyers turned into the impetus for a prolonged public and legal drama with the 43-year-old district judge at its heart.
Givens, who has presided over the 282nd District Court in Dallas since 2015, had trouble logging in to her Zoom account that morning, a familiar woe for all who transitioned to virtual work during the pandemic. It didn’t seem like too much of a problem—she had a relatively light docket that day. One meeting involved a man named Floyd Aaron, who’d been accused of violating the conditions of the deferred adjudication of his 2015 burglary charge.
Before the meeting, Givens asked her court coordinator, Arceola Warfield—known by many regulars at the courthouse as “Arce”—to log into the judge’s account and announce that the judge would participate via speakerphone, according to affidavits obtained by the Texas Observer.
Longtime defense attorney Tim Jefferey, representing Aaron, attended the Zoom meeting while Assistant District Attorney Eduardo Carranza represented the state. A handful of others, including probation officers, logged on.
Some participants understood that Warfield, the court coordinator, continued to use the judge’s Zoom account, although the video was off and a photo of Givens appeared onscreen. To courtroom regulars, Warfield’s voice sounded distinct from Givens’ confident, orotund tone. At one point, the coordinator asked the court reporter to go on the record—something the judge normally does.
At least one lawyer said it wasn’t clear Warfield was the one behind the Zoom picture—during the meeting, the defendant addressed Warfield as “your honor” on at least one occasion—and word of this ambiguity made its way to leaders of the Dallas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association (DCDLA), which represents more than 600 lawyers. The group’s board of directors filed a formal complaint against Givens with the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, alleging that Givens had instructed her court coordinator to impersonate her.
Givens has denied that she instructed her employee to impersonate her, calling the allegation “absurd,” according to the Dallas Morning News.
In an affidavit, Warfield later said her request to go on the record was tongue-in-cheek. “I jokingly said to Lisa Jackson, our court reporter, ‘Let’s go on the record.’ This was a joke because I said it after Judge Givens told the parties she was getting off the call,” Warfield wrote. “I recall that several people in attendance on the Zoom call laughed in response.”
Other participants in the Zoom call—including court reporter Lisa Jackson and Dallas County sheriff’s deputies Kenneth Brame and David Podraza—also provided sworn statements saying they knew the voice behind Givens’ photo was her staff member.
“Arceola Warfield never presented herself as Judge Givens,” Podraza said in an affidavit. “When she was addressed as ‘Judge,’ Arceola Warfield quickly corrected and identified herself as ‘Arce.’”
The accusations spurred the Public Integrity Unit of the Texas Rangers to launch its own investigation, which is ongoing. Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot recused himself from investigating the claims, leaving the task to the DA of nearby Kaufman County. Creuzot and the Texas Rangers declined to comment.
But this wasn’t the first time the DCDLA had raised concerns about Givens. The group lodged at least three previous complaints about the judge’s behavior toward attorneys and about the way she streamed hearings on Facebook. In part because of the number of attorneys involved with the complaints, Givens either recused herself or was removed from a staggering number of cases in 2022. Ray Wheless, the administrative judge in charge of the region since 2018, told a Dallas news station, “I’ve never seen this many recusals in one county. I’ve never heard of it, never seen it.”
Behind the scenes, prosecutors have joined defense attorneys in criticizing Givens’ courtroom behavior. In March, prosecutors in a high-profile murder case requested Givens be removed from the trial, claiming she was biased against the state based on her courtroom comments. Voters, on the other hand, have continued to back her.
Givens, who took home $172,000 annually as of last year (the maximum pay allowed by law for a judge in her position with her experience) was elected to her third term in 2022. Givens provided publicly filed documents but declined to comment further. But she told the Dallas Morning News, “These claims are unsubstantiated” in a statement issued in response to the 2021 complaint. “This is a false narrative motivated to suppress the will of the community and to pressure me to discontinue the progress we are making toward change in the court system.”
The situation in the Dallas County Courthouse remains tense as defense lawyers and prosecutors who want Givens off the bench wait for the results of multiple investigations.
So far, both sides seems to be trusting the process.
But Givens’ critics say the drawn-out criminal and judicial misconduct investigations are only worsening the damage in Dallas courts. In contrast, Givens and some supporters suggest that the way the allegations against her have been made public show how the Texas judicial accountability system, normally bureaucratic and secretive, can be weaponized.
The pandemic has ushered in its share of unusual judicial misconduct complaints. Just last year, the commission disciplined judges in 78 cases. In February 2022, Clyde Black, a justice of the peace in Houston County, was publicly admonished after he said he would release anyone brought into court for violating the “stay at home” orders imposed in the pandemic’s early days. In April, Barbara Stalder with the 280th Family Protective Order Court in Harris County was reprimanded for ordering attorneys to be shackled during court proceedings. Judge Bonnie Rangel with the 171st District Court in El Paso County received a public warning in August based on complaints that she verbally abused attorneys—in one instance yelling at lawyers for 20 minutes during a Zoom hearing.
All of these decisions came from the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, a 13-member appointed board responsible for holding elected judges accountable in Texas.
Every state has some form of judicial conduct oversight body meant to determine whether elected or appointed jurists violate laws, judicial canons, or ethical norms. Texas’ commission was established via a constitutional provision in 1965. The commission is made up of unpaid appointees who serve staggered six-year terms. A considerable portion of the commissioners—judges, attorneys, and nonlawyers—are avowed Republicans (the governor, the Texas Supreme Court, and the state bar all appoint members).
The political nature of these appointments is sometimes obvious: In 2019, Governor Greg Abbott revoked the nominations of two members—who served several months while awaiting Texas Senate confirmation—after they voted to sanction a Waco judge who had refused to conduct same-sex marriages.
One of those members, who asked not to be named, said there is “no question” in her mind that she was removed because of how she voted. Commission votes are supposed to be secret, but the member said she’s certain that some of Abbott’s staff and lawyers knew how she’d voted because of questions they asked her in a meeting held afterward. In response, she asked if they were expecting her to vote in line with Abbott’s views because she was an appointee. They told her they would never try to direct a person’s vote. “Well, that’s exactly what it sounds like you’re trying to do,” the member said she replied. Her nomination was revoked just two months after the meeting.
In 2022, the agency had 14 full-time employees—including attorneys and investigators—who do the legwork of sifting through, analyzing, and investigating complaints. But it’s understaffed, and its leadership claims its $1.2 million budget is a stretch for its growing workload. New York State’s Commission on Judicial Conduct has a budget over $7 million, and the agency reported receiving about the same number of complaints as Texas as of 2021. Last year was the first time since fiscal year 2018 that the Texas commission managed to dispose of more complaints than were filed. By the end of FY 2022, only 169 complaints had been pending a year or more, a significant decrease in its prior backlog.
But in the FY 2022 report, Chairman David Schenck—a Dallas appellate judge who was appointed to the commission by the Texas Supreme Court in 2020—warned the small agency won’t be able to keep up that pace.
“The Commission’s recent high level of productivity is not likely to be sustainable given current staffing levels. Our commission oversees far more judges than its … counterparts in other large states, and yet it operates with a fraction of the authorized staff,” he wrote. The commission already spends most of its budget on staff and travel, but also must shell out money to hire outside counsel to defend itself against two lawsuits after Attorney General Ken Paxton declined to help. Schenk said he was unable to speak with the Observer due to statutory limitations on his public comments.
The commission resolved a record number of complaints—2,229—in FY 2022. Its workload grew in part because of a constitutional amendment Texas voters passed in November 2021 that expanded the agency’s authority to include candidates for judicial office.
In some ways, the judicial accountability system mirrors the court system over which judges preside. But key differences contribute to the massive caseload for the agency’s relatively small size. Complaints to the commission can arise from anywhere, including news stories. Unlike in civil court, people can file complaints anonymously or on someone else’s behalf since the commission does not “require a complainant to have firsthand knowledge of the alleged misconduct.” In Givens’ case, the DCDLA board as a group submitted complaints related to the judge’s treatment of individual defense attorneys and prosecutors.
Nationwide, more than 90 percent of complaints submitted to state judicial misconduct commissions get dismissed, often because complainants asked agencies to weigh in on something outside their jurisdiction, according to Cynthia Gray, director of the Center of Judicial Ethics at the National Center for State Courts. And this is a crucial point: These commissions remain leashed in order to protect the independence of the courts. Only about 1 percent of filings result in judges stepping down or being publicly disciplined, and nine out of 10 misbehaving judges kept their jobs after committing misconduct, according to investigations by NBC News in 2021 and Reuters in 2020.
In FY 2022, only 78 of the 2,229 complaints (about 3 percent) disposed of by the Texas commission resulted in disciplinary action—which can include everything from a private sanction (where the judge is not named), a recommendation to the Texas Supreme Court for the judge’s removal, or even a referral for a criminal investigation. The commission issued 40 public sanctions and 38 private sanctions. Two judges were referred to law enforcement for potential criminal charges.
Action is most common against justices of the peace and slightly more rare against district court judges—powerful jurists who handle the state’s felony criminal cases, including death penalty trials, or oversee high-stakes civil disputes. Twenty-five of the 856 complaints issued against district judges in FY 2022 resulted in disciplinary action.
“Judicial conduct commissions hold an awkward position in the justice system,” writes Gray in a paper titled “How Judicial Conduct Commissions Work.” “The public, pointing to the high complaint-dismissal rate, accuses them of white-washing judicial misconduct. The media generally discovers them only in the event of a scandal, accusing them of being secretive and obscure. Some judges accuse them of engaging in witch hunts and acting as kangaroo courts or Star Chambers or, at most, grudgingly accept them as a necessary evil.”
But Gray told the Observer that she’s never heard of another complaint like the one against Givens. “No judge has been publicly disciplined for having a staff member impersonate her during a Zoom meeting, and I have not heard of any other allegations of a judge doing that,” Gray wrote in an email.
The Texas commission, and similar bodies in 21 states, are empowered to take action against a judge directly rather than just making recommendations to the Texas Supreme Court. It’s one of 34 state commissions that keeps complaints confidential until the commission finds probable cause that misconduct occurred, according to the National Center for State Courts. Oregon is the only state that allows hearings to be public—in most other states, proceedings generally remain confidential unless the commission recommends public discipline or until the Supreme Court issues an order.
For all its power, the body has precious little oversight. The agency has argued that it’s immune even from review by the Sunset Advisory Commission, which evaluates the efficiency of other state agencies.
Often, the public is kept in the dark. The State Commission on Judicial Conduct operates under a constitutionally guaranteed shroud of secrecy. The agency is exempt from the Texas Public Information Act.
Complaints occasionally get leaked by the complainants, who aren’t beholden to the same confidentiality rules as agency employees of the accused judges, as was the case with Givens.
Givens was among more than a dozen Black women on the ticket for local judicial office when she first ran in Dallas in 2014, part of a historic wave of women of color vying for seats on the bench. This recent push to diversify the historically white judiciary is not unique to Dallas—Harris County swore in a record number of Black women judges on New Year’s Day in 2019.
Givens has practiced law in Texas and in New York, where she got her J.D. from Syracuse University. She has a background both as a defense attorney and an assistant DA. She received her undergraduate degree at Tuskegee University in Alabama, where she was the president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People chapter. She spent eight years practicing law, twice the amount of experience required to be a district judge, before running as a Democrat.
Since she took office in 2015, her courtroom has repeatedly come under scrutiny, including by county commissioners in 2022, for having disposed of the fewest cases of any Dallas County felony court over three years—4,572—according to a report from KERA News. But judges are far from the only players with the power to push or delay cases. Many cases have stalled in the pandemic. As of January 2023, more than 39,000 active and inactive criminal cases were pending in all Dallas County district courts, according to the state Office of Court Administration.
In 2022, Givens beat two challengers—both former judges—in the Democratic primary with over 50 percent of the vote, though by then reports about judicial misconduct complaints had appeared in the Dallas Morning News. She remains highly visible in the community, holding public panel discussions about the criminal justice system and helping run a youth education program.
But among Dallas defense attorneys, Givens’ reputation is poor. In a 2021 poll administered by the DCDLA, where members were asked to grade judges based on things like temperament, communication, and impartiality, Givens received the lowest overall score—9.6 out of 30. That was just over half of the next-lowest judge’s score. In contrast, Audra Riley, a Black woman elected to Dallas County Criminal Court No. 3 in 2020, received one of the highest ratings, 28.2.
Ed Gray, a Dallas political commentator, has repeatedly interviewed Givens on his internet radio show “The Commish.” He told the Observer he believes Givens and other Black women on the bench face undue scrutiny and discrimination. “Her demeanor outside of the courtroom has a lot to do with this as well—she’s young, and she’s hip, so to speak,” Gray said. “I’ve heard some people indicate that they don’t like the way she walks. They don’t like the way her hair looks. … Something as superficial as how she looks.”
Some in the local defense community disagree with the claims about Givens. Charles Maduka, a defense attorney in Dallas for 34 years, said the allegations don’t ring true to him. “She was elected to preside and dispense justice fairly, not to be friends with defense lawyers or make them happy,” he said. “This whole thing is just politics.”
In the summer of 2022, more than a dozen attorneys filed requests for Givens to be removed from cases, citing alleged bias. This slew of requested removals and recusals rocked the courthouse, forcing about 100 cases to be reassigned to other judges. These requests highlight the strong undercurrent of dissatisfaction many attorneys have expressed with Givens.
The first official complaint about Givens came soon after she live-streamed a video of a hearing on her Facebook page on June 11, 2020.
The hearing involved a woman named Shaniqua Wilson, who had been accused of violating conditions of her deferred adjudication after pleading guilty to forging a $1,647.83 check in 2016. Shortly after the video stream began, Givens asked Assistant District Attorney Jamie Young if the state rested. Young responded, and Givens, apparently having not heard the response, asked Young to repeat herself.
“I said yes,” Young told the judge.
Givens, staring at the camera, replied: “Are you talking to me? Counsel, I’m instructing you that your tone, you might need to change it.”
“I’m sorry, your honor,” Young said. “I don’t have a tone. I think I’m a little confused.”
Givens then began to lecture Young.
During the tongue-lashing, Young remained unemotional. Meanwhile, the judge’s Facebook friends began commenting in real time in support of Givens, saying things like “I LOVE AMBER,” and “Let her know! Check that tone!”
When one commenter posted that the attorney had been disrespectful, Givens replied by providing Young’s supervisor’s name and phone number.
DCDLA’s board filed its first complaint against Givens in July, describing that hearing and alleging that the judge “consistently demonstrated a poor judicial temperament, highlighted by aggression, condescension, and disrespect towards attorneys practicing in her court.” The complaint specifically called out Givens for posting court videos on Facebook—and for interacting with commenters after the fact.
“A judge would never engage a member of the public watching in the gallery this way,” the complaint reads. “Judge Givens crossed a very clear line and allowed her desire for public adoration to supersede her obligations to remain impartial and professional.”
The complaint says that could be viewed as an intimidation tactic on top of being “an inappropriate exchange between the judge and a member of the public.”
The association’s subsequent two complaints raised concerns about Givens’ “belittling” treatment of defense attorneys.
Altogether, the complaints allege Givens has committed numerous ethics violations, including violating state judicial canons that dictate judges must be “patient, dignified and courteous to litigants, jurors, witnesses, lawyers and others with whom the judge deals in an official capacity,” and that judges “shall not be swayed by partisan interests, public clamor, or fear of criticism.”
Douglas Huff, who became DCDLA president in January, said even the appearance of judicial bias is also dangerous to a court, as outlined in another canon of the Texas Code of Judicial Conduct. “Ultimately, that can cause cases to be overturned, that can cause appeals to take place—all based on the appearance of impropriety,” Huff told the Observer.
In January 2022, Givens filed what’s called a 202 lawsuit against the DCDLA and several of its members individually. That legal action could have enabled her to investigate DCDLA and some of its officers on suspicion of defamation. She argued that its attorneys—one of whom vocally supported her political opponent, whom Givens also sought to depose in the suit—were knowingly misrepresenting the situation in the midst of her reelection.
Generally, public figures like Givens can only successfully sue for defamation if they can prove a person made false claims and did so with “actual malice,” meaning the person lied intentionally in order to damage the reputation of the public figure. A judge later dismissed the suit.
Amanda Branan, a criminal defense attorney with 10 years’ experience, was targeted by name in Givens’ lawsuit. A solo practitioner, Branan served as the president of DCDLA in 2021 when the fourth complaint against Givens was filed. She runs a private practice in Dallas that handles cases from first-degree felonies down to Class B misdemeanors. In December 2022, she had more than 100 clients. She said there is a pervasive problem in the Dallas County Courthouse with judges—including Givens—not being held accountable. “She’s not respectful of our time or what else is going on or that somebody’s sitting in jail longer. Her court is just very inefficient.”
Branan was not present for the Zoom call in which a staff member allegedly impersonated Givens, but she attended an unrelated matter before Givens that same day. She said when she logged onto Zoom, she saw Givens’ picture on screen but recognized Warfield’s voice asking about the situation. Branan said she and Warfield discussed the matter in full. They were about to summon Branan’s client, but then discovered the client was in quarantine due to COVID-19 exposure. It wasn’t until the end of the call that Branan remembers Warfield clarifying that she was not the judge. “I feel like if my client wasn’t in quarantine, she would have done the same thing on mine,” Branan said, referring to the alleged Zoom impersonation.
Because of the ongoing dispute with Givens, Branan is one of several lawyers who have filed motions asking to have Givens removed from their cases. But she said Givens habitually ignores requests for recusal past the usual deadlines. “What happened is that, like most things in that court, they go into some black hole or something and you get ignored.”
Branan said the core of the issue is that it’s become difficult for defense attorneys to effectively practice in Givens’ court. “Her behavior has just gotten worse and worse over time. When things are brought to her attention, she doesn’t change them,” she said. “It’s almost like rules don’t apply to her. She’s made clear that she wants to be more of a movie star than a public servant.”
Some prosecutors have also reported problems with Givens. One former employee of the Dallas District Attorney’s Office—who asked that her name not be used but who worked as a prosecutor for over five years—said she had so much trouble during her six-month stint in Givens’ courtroom that she refused to try more cases there. At the time, she said she told her bosses, “I’m not getting on Zoom to be harassed by her again. … I’m not sitting here to be patronized by her again.” She left the DA’s office a short time after making those remarks.
As allegations about Givens’ behavior made headlines, she sprang to her own defense—albeit in a limited capacity, as judges often can’t speak publicly about legal matters. Givens provided investigators with screenshots of an email chain from DCDLA, where members expressed a goal of removing Givens from the bench.
Her team pointed to this as a reason to be skeptical of their claims, but Lillian Hardwick, an attorney considered an expert on judicial ethics and misconduct matters in Texas, told the Observer such a motivation is likely common among complainants. The commission’s own rule states that “a lawyer having knowledge that a judge has committed a violation of applicable rules of judicial conduct that raises a substantial question as to the judge’s fitness for office shall inform the appropriate authority.”
The fact that complaints were supported by so many lawyers—represented by the DCDLA—could be considered unusual, though there have been other Texas cases where groups came together to file judicial misconduct complaints.
Complaints abound about Texas judges not showing up to court, mistreating lawyers, or showing bias against one side—factors at the heart of complaints against Givens—have resulted in rare disciplinary action against other judges. Many such disciplinary actions target judges who made procedural slipups, behaviors that may look harmless to the public. But other instances of misconduct appear more blatant, including judges who used racist rhetoric on the bench or on social media or who misused their power to try to influence the decisions of juries or of other judges.
One Dallas County district judge who faced disciplinary action from the commission was former 203rd Judicial District Court Judge Teresa Hawthorne. The commission publicly reprimanded Hawthorne in 2017 after she attempted to sway a Lubbock County judge who was in charge of a case involving her nephew. In another instance also addressed in the reprimand, jurors alleged she chastised them in 2016 for finding a defendant guilty after accusing them of failing to deliberate and of being too harsh.
Hawthorne ran against Givens—with the full-throated support of some DCDLA members—in the Democratic primary in 2022 and lost.
Huff, the current DCDLA president, said the main frustration he has with the existing judicial accountability system is the waiting game. Complaints filed against Givens in 2020—before his term as president—remain unresolved. “We have put our names on the line,” Huff said. “We have done these things not because we don’t like somebody. It’s because there’s a problem here that is damaging to our clients and the judiciary as a whole. It takes away the credibility of Dallas judges, and we have some great Dallas judges.”
Maduka, the defense attorney who supports Givens, said he trusts that the dust will settle and the truth—whatever it may be—will come to light. The commission, he said, “has the investigative tools to look into it and see if it has merits. If it doesn’t, they dismiss. If it does, well, they bring down sanctions. But I would trust that that body works the way it’s supposed to work.”
But whether the commission actually has the tools necessary to sort through the messy allegations is a question mark. The commission’s power is undermined by understaffing and by the sheer volume of complaints it fields each year. Complaints often linger for months, even years. Givens’ complaints have been in limbo for nearly three years now.
High-profile cases like Givens’ turn the public’s attention temporarily to the systems of judicial accountability in Texas, but not for long. Although the judicial commission oversees elected officials—and even has the power to recommend their removal from office—members of the public are given very little insight into who judges the judges.
The complaints against Givens—despite taking place against the backdrop of a Zoom court—didn’t jump out to Hardwick as particularly outrageous. “After having researched and written about judicial discipline since 2002, nothing really surprises me,” she said.