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Misconduct By Judge Earns Public Reprimand

Special court of review issues public reprimand over misconduct by judge.


A special court of review has sanctioned former Judge Etta Mullin with a public reprimand, having determined she failed to follow the law and treated lawyers and criminal defendants with disrespect. Mullin had appealed to the special court following a public admonition by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct.

The special court found on Oct. 21 that the evidence in an August trial de novo proved that Mullin, former judge of Dallas County Criminal Court No. 5, treated lawyers and criminal defendants with disrespect, failed to follow the law by inserting herself into recusal proceedings, and failed to follow the law by requiring criminal defendants to make payments for costs and fees before she would accept their plea deals.

The special court, consisting of 14th Court of Appeals Justice Kem Thompson Frost, Seventh Court of Appeals Justice Pat Pirtle, and 13th Court of Appeals Justice Nelda Rodriguez, ruled that Mullin had a recurring

pattern of misconduct.

"The violations, when considered in the aggregate, warrant the greater sanction," the court ruled. "To preserve the integrity and independence of the judiciary, to restore and reaffirm public confidence in the administration of justice and in recognition that Texas judges must honor and respect the judicial office as a public trust, we conclude that a public reprimand is appropriate for the respondent's violations."

SCJC executive director Seana Willing said she would let the court's ruling speak for itself. She added that in her 16 years at the commission, only one other special court of review has issued a higher-level sanction against a judge than what the commission issued in the underlying proceeding. A public reprimand is the most severe sanction that the special court has as an option, Willing noted. In contrast, the commission's public admonition was the lowest public sanction that Mullin could have gotten.
Mullin's attorney, Marc Richman of The Law Offices of Marc H. Richman in Dallas, didn't return a call seeking comment before deadline.

The court ruled that Mullin violated the Texas Constitution and rules in the Texas Code of Judicial Conduct that require judges: to treat lawyers, litigants and others with patience, dignity and courtesy; to be faithful to the law and maintain professional competence in the law; and to always comply with the law and behave to promote public confidence in the judiciary.

Disrespect

The court ruled that Mullin failed to treat lawyers and litigants properly when she made them wait for hours or days to handle business in her courtroom. She made lawyers line up and wait before her in a tedious and time-consuming procedure. Criminal defendants and lawyers both faced hardships. Mullin would also leave her bench without explanation or notice of when she would return.

"The problem stems not from the respondent's leaving the bench but from the respondent's failure to communicate with those present in the courtroom," said the opinion. "Common courtesy requires a judge to let those waiting to be heard to know whether and when she anticipates returning. … The respondent showed a lack of consideration for court-goers and thus failed to act with the courtesy expected of a judicial officer."

The opinion states that Mullin's procedures led to significant delays, inefficiencies and hardships on lawyers and litigants. Even after it became apparent, Mullin refused to make changes.

"A judge's discretion does not extend to compromising the administration of justice with persistent and unwarranted delays and wait times that could be diminished or eliminated with basic communication," the opinion said.

Not Following the Law

The special court also found that Mullin failed to follow the law and be competent in the law. She tried to intervene in recusal proceedings, once by filing a motion for reconsideration of an order of recusal, which prompted an appeal. The appellate court found Mullin's intervention was "wholly improper and without authority." Even after that, Mullin again tried to intervene in a separate recusal proceeding by talking with the region's presiding administrative judge.

According to the opinion, Mullin also failed to follow the law and was incompetent in performing her duties when she required criminal defendants to make up-front payments toward their court costs and criminal fees before she would accept their plea deals. Lawyers testified that low-income indigent criminal defendants couldn't pay, and that Mullin's policy kept them in jail longer, caused them financial hardships by making the payments, and wasted time by making them appear repeatedly at plea hearings.

"It is not the proper role of a judge to negotiate the terms of a plea bargain or personally supervise enforcement of collections," said the opinion. "The respondent's practice transformed her role from that of a neutral officer into that of a prosecutor or collection agent for the state."

Mullin also applied her prepayment policy disproportionately and discriminately against some lawyers because the judge had an element of animosity against them, ruled the court.

"We find it to be willful conduct, committed in bad faith," said the opinion.

Originally posted by Angela Morris on TexasLawyer.com.

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