The Texas State Office of Administrative Hearings provides a critical function to our state. The SOAH provides administrative judges in cases involving certifications and licenses for doctors, police officers and others. It is essential that the SOAH judges appear to be impartial for the process to work. But, recently, the SOAH process broke down completely. The Texas Medical Board licenses physicians in Texas. The TMB brought a case against a Dr. Robert Van Boven. The Administrative Judge, Hunter Burkhalter, found in favor of the doctor. It does not occur often that TMB loses, but this time, they did.
The accusations concerned three patients who accused Dr. Van Boven of improper touching. Judge Burkhalter found the evidence lacking. The TMB could have appealed, or it could accept the decision. TMB chose to accept the decision. But, while accepting the decision, the TMB chair read a statement stating that different judge might have reached a different result. Duh. That seems obvious. Different judges will indeed reach different results in close cases. The chair probably meant he believed Judge Burkhalter had a bias. And as part of his statement, the chair, Sharif Zaafran, questioned Judge Burkhalter’s impartiality.
But, the TMB was not satisfied. It sent a letter to SOAH accusing Judge Burkhalter of bias and questioned his ability to decide cases involving sexual misconduct impartially. The letter cited an overheard conversation between Judge Burkhalter during an unrelated hearing that super model Kate Upton was attractive. TMB argued in the letter that Judge Burkhalter’s decision in the Van Boven case was wrong, that it disregard certain evidence, even though they chose not to appeal the decision.
The CEO of TMB asked to meet with the Chief Administrative Judge of SOAH. The TMB and the SOAH are both state agencies. The meeting took place. Soon after, the Chief Judge of SOAH issued a letter to Judge Burkhalter reciting the concerns expressed by the head of TMB. In short, the SOAH questioned the judge’s ability and impartiality, even though the TMB chose not to appeal his decision.
Judge Burkhalter was fired soon after. See Austin Chronicle report. So much for an independent judiciary.