(CN) – A South Texas judge’s daily court-opening phrase, “This is a redneck court,” got him censured by a state ethics watchdog, which ordered him to take racial sensitivity classes.
Christopher Lee, a Republican, is a justice of the peace in Kleberg County, presiding over a small claims court that handles traffic cases and landlord-tenant disputes, with jurisdiction covering misdemeanors punishable by up to a $500 fine and civil matters with not more than $10,000 at stake.
The Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct reprimanded Lee after Jesus Espinosa complained that the judge’s statement “This is a redneck court” during a November 2016 jury trial offended him. The commission issued Lee a “public warning” on April 18, which was released Tuesday.
In the trial, Espinosa’s former landlord Darla Gandy demanded payment for moving out of her rental property before his lease was up.
Espinosa said his move was justified because Gandy had planted a Confederate flag on the property to intimidate him, the public warning states.
The commission summoned Lee to its office in Austin on April 5 for a hearing about Espinosa’s complaint.
“Judge Lee acknowledged to the Commission that he made the statement ‘this is a redneck court.’ During his testimony before the Commission, he stated he used to open court each day with the comment,” the 3-page admonition states.
Lee explained himself to the commission: “Lee stated he believes the term ‘redneck’ means ‘a small town country boy who works hard from sun up tell [sic] sundown in order to get the job done.’
“In describing what he meant the term to mean in his courtroom, the judge stated, ‘This court will work hard being informal to hear anything & everything pertaining to the case and stay as long as it takes to get to the truth,’” the warning states.
Lee also told the commission he agreed with Merriam-Webster’s definition of a redneck, and gave commissioners a copy of the definition: “A white person who lives in a small town or in the country especially in the southern U.S., who typically has a working-class job, and who is seen by others as being uneducated and having opinions and attitudes that are offensive.”
According to the commission, Lee agreed that his pet phrase could give the appearance that he is biased.
“However, he also disagreed with the notion that a person in Mr. Espinosa’s position could have perceived his use of the term ‘redneck’ as reflecting potential bias or prejudice,” the warning states.
The commission ordered Lee to take four hours of training in racial sensitivity from a mentor within 60 days and avoid the appearance of bias in court.
Lee presides in Riviera, an unincorporated, Hispanic-majority farming community of 2,000 about 60 miles southwest of Corpus Christi.
Lee’s clerk said he was in court Wednesday morning, so he could not immediately comment on the order.