Judge Edith Jones of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals based in New Orleans addressed the University of Pennsylvania law school on Feb. 20. Her comments were not recorded, but five students and one attorney who were in attendance signed affidavits on what was said.
Those were used to generate a 12-page complaint filed in New Orleans stating that Jones "has engaged in conduct that is prejudicial to the effective and expeditious administration of the business of the courts, undermines public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary, and creates a strong appearance of impropriety."
Jones is accused of saying that certain "racial groups like African-Americans and Hispanics are predisposed to crime," and are "prone to commit acts of violence" and be involved in more violent and "heinous" crimes than people of other ethnicities.
The judge also allegedly said Mexicans would prefer to be on death row in the United States than serving prison terms in their native country, and that it's an insult for the U.S. to look to the laws of other countries such as Mexico.
The complaint also states that Jones said defendants' claims of racism, innocence, arbitrariness, and violations of international law and treaties are just "red herrings" used by opponents of the death penalty, and that claims of "mental retardation" by capital defendants disgust her. The fact that those defendants were convicted of a capital crime is sufficient to prove they are not "mentally retarded," the complaint alleges Jones to have said.
And it alleges she said a death sentence provides a service to capital-case defendants because they are likely to make peace with God only just before their execution.
A message seeking comment left at Jones' law office in Houston was not immediately returned Tuesday. Appointed by President Ronald Reagan, Jones has served on the court since 1985 and was its chief justice for seven years, until October 2012.
"Students were appalled by her speech," said Katie Naranjo, a spokeswoman for the coalition, which includes the Mexican Capital Legal Assistance Program, the League of United Latin American Citizens and the Texas Civil Rights Project.
Also included in the complaint are the Austin chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Bar Association's Houston affiliate.
Naranjo said the coalition is demanding an investigation. She said it took months for those who heard Jones' comments to contact lawyers and verify that they could warrant a formal complaint. It also took time to compile the affidavits, she said.
The coalition said Jones' comments resembled those made during the trial of Duane Buck, a black Texan sentenced to death in 1997 for the murder of his former girlfriend and another man.
At Buck's trial, a state psychologist listed race as one of several factors in describing the danger he would continue to pose. Though the psychologist was called to the stand by defense lawyers, a prosecutor emphasized the testimony in her closing argument.
Later, John Cornyn, then Texas attorney general, identified the case as among six in which race had played an inappropriate role in imposing death sentences. The other inmates all received new sentencing hearings, and they've all been resentenced to death. Buck hasn't received a new hearing.
"Judge Jones's comments are frighteningly similar to those that violated Duane Buck's constitutional rights," Christina Swarns, one of Buck's lawyers and director of the Criminal Justice Project of the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, said in a statement.