EDITOR DANIEL CLIFTON
AUSTIN — A state judicial board has publicly reprimanded Burnet County Judge James Oakley for the “tree and a rope” Facebook comment he posted in November 2016 in connection with the murder of a San Antonio police officer.
The State Commission on Judicial Conduct issued the reprimand May 8. Oakley also is required to complete a 30-hour education program and “participate in four hours of instruction in the area of racial sensitivity with a mentor to be chosen by the commission.”
The commission initiated the inquiry into Oakley’s social media comment after receiving 18 written complaints following the Facebook post.
On Nov. 21, 2016, after authorities arrested Otis Tyrone McKane, an African-American man, and charged him with the murder of San Antonio Police Department Det. Benjamin Marconi, Oakley posted that it was “time for a tree and a rope” under the suspect’s photo.
“There was never anything racial about my comment,” Oakley said.
The post was made on his personal Facebook page, and he took it down after someone pointed out that it could be seen as offensive. Oakley apologized at the time of the post and subsequently several more times, including at a board meeting of the Pedernales Electric Cooperative of which he is a member.
Oakley said he was reacting to the senseless murder of the San Antonio police officer and noted that, of all the people who have come out against him because of the Facebook comment, nobody has inquired about the status of the murder investigation. According to Bexar County records, McKane is being held in jail and awaiting trial.
According to the commission’s report, the concerns complainants had included, but were not limited to: the call for vigilante justice; the apparent disregard to due process of the law; the influence the comment could have on the potential jury pool; and the racial insensitivity of the Facebook post. Other complainants also “questioned Judge Oakley’s suitability for judicial office and expressed doubts that he could perform his judicial duties impartially.”
While county judges can conduct criminal and civil court proceedings, Oakley has very limited duties pertaining to those cases.
“I only do uncontested probates. That’s it,” Oakley said. “I do not assess fines or punishments.”
Oakley’s role as Burnet County judge is mainly administrative along with the four other members of the county commissioners court.
In December 2016, the PEC board of directors heard complaints against Oakley as well as support for him during its review of his Facebook post. As a result, the PEC board voted to strip him of his vice president position on the board (he is still a board member) and issue him a warning. The PEC membership encompasses a wide swath of Central Texas, but his county judge responsibilities are only for Burnet County.
Oakley appeared before the State Commission on Judicial Conduct to address the complaints against him. He believes those complaints are politically motivated.
“I took the Facebook post down as soon as I realized some people were offended by it. There was no malice in it. I was simply reacting to another senseless murder of a police officer,” Oakley said.
He added that at no time was he advocating vigilante justice or skipping due process of the law for the suspect.
“But people seem to be more focused on attacking me than on my sincere apology,” he said.
As for the commission’s ruling, Oakley said he has the required continuing education hours and carries a surplus forward but accepts the opportunity to meet with a mentor regarding racial sensitivity. In its report, the panel noted “Judge Oakley made certain statements that indicated to the commission that he could benefit from racial sensitivity training with a mentoring judge.”
“I’m always welcome to a discussion on contemporary viewpoints on social issues,” Oakley said.