Montgomery County DA Lets Judge Resign in Lieu of Criminal Prosecution

Judge Michael Seiler, who once bragged about keeping a gun in his lap while presiding over a violent sex offender's case, resigned from the bench Tuesday in light of allegations he used confidential juror information to help his fledgling re-election campaign – which is illegal.

On Tuesday the Montgomery County District Attorney's Office announced that Seiler had agreed to resign from the 435th District Court and withdraw from the Republican primary race in lieu of criminal prosecution. The DA's office says it began investigating the Conroe judge earlier this month after former jurors on cases in Seiler's court complained that they received his “campaign solicitation” letters in their mailboxes. Jurors lodged similar complaints with the State Commission on Judicial Conduct this month.

According to the DA's office, in the course of its investigation into Seiler's use of jurors' information, prosecutors "obtained information that appeared to confirm the jurors' concerns." 

"Juror information is confidential by law. It cannot be used for any purpose other than the official proceedings of the judicial system," the DA's office said in a statement announcing Seiler's resignation. "This confidentiality provides jurors an environment that is safe when they are making decisions regarding large sums of money, business arrangements and criminal punishment." 

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If Seiler's name sounds familiar, it's because he long played a critical role in the probably unconstitutional legal purgatory Texas established for sex offenders who have finished their sentences but whom the state deems to be sexually violent predators unfit for release back into society.

Starting in 2007, when he was appointed to the bench by then-governor Rick Perry, Seiler presided over the only court in Texas specifically tasked with handling the civil commitment hearings for sex offenders.  Under the program overseen by the bluntly titled Office of Violent Sex Offender Management, the worst-of-the-worst offenders are sent to halfway houses (or boarding homes or jails if those aren’t available or if they can’t abide by the program’s strict rules) to treat “behavioral abnormalities," a legal construct, not a medical condition, in order to safely integrate offenders back into society after they've done their penance.

In a series of articles digging into the program in late 2014, Houston Chronicle reporters Mike Ward and Anita Hassan uncovered a number of startling problems with the program – like that nobody in the entire 16-year history of the program ever successfully completed it, or that some offenders had been sent back to prison for life for simple rules violations.

Seiler ultimately became yet another problem for the beleaguered program, one that caught the attention of criminal justice reformers in the Texas Legislature.

Last year, the state judicial conduct commission scolded Seiler for how he talked in public about the sex-offender cases before his court. In front of conservative and Republican groups in Montgomery County, Seiler had called offenders who appeared before him “psychopaths” who should be castrated “from the neck up.” He lamented that he couldn’t banish all sex offenders convicted in the state of Texas to the program, and boasted about keeping a gun in his lap while presiding over the case of an offender who was "way out there." In one meeting, while describing to the crowd his role in the state’s civil commitment program and the kind of cases before his court, Seiler flashed an image of Hannibal Lecter.

The state judicial conduct commission ultimately ordered Seiler to “undergo additional judicial training” because of how he “berated and belittled attorneys representing sex offenders, openly criticized a witness and made comments outside of the courtroom” that indicated an inability to be fair and impartial.

Seiler's conduct created a crisis of sorts. Defense attorneys had the perfect excuse to kick him off their clients’ cases, even as Seiler contested all the motions to recuse himself. As the Chron reported last year, at least two men flagged as “high risk” pedophiles walked free without supervision because their commitment hearings never took place amid the backlog of cases.

While state lawmakers stripped Seiler of his authority over all civil commitment cases last year, his agreement this week with the Montgomery County prosecutors to stop their criminal investigation means he'll never again be a judge in the state of Texas. 

In a prepared statement, Montgomery County DA Brett Ligon said moving forward with the investigation and prosecution "would have allowed Judge Seiler to linger in office, perhaps with the ability to preside over cases, at least for the remainder of his current term."  So instead of facing charges, Seiler agreed to a blanket judicial ban.  

In addition to resigning, he'll immediately forgo his salary, benefits and any claim to a judicial pension. The DA's office says the agreement will also prohibit Seiler from seeking judicial office in the future and prevents him from ever sitting as a visiting judge. If he somehow wins in the GOP primary or qualifies for a runoff, under the agreement with the DA's office, he'd be forced to immediately withdraw and cede the race to the Democratic challenger.

Still, Seiler says you shouldn't mistake the deal to drop the investigation for an admission of guilt. George Parnham, Seiler's attorney, told the Chron yesterday that the former judge says he did nothing wrong, and that even though the DA's office was building a criminal case, "there has been no finding by any court or Grand Jury of any wrongdoing on the part of Judge Seiler." Parnham said Seiler simply "wanted to get on with his life and legal practice."

Ligon, meanwhile, says he believes his office "arrived at the most just resolution of this matter."

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