Jurist imprudence

The search for a new federal judge reaches the lowest common denominator

Misty Murphy was terrified. It was her very first trial in her short career as a defense attorney, and she was facing a jury in the courtroom of municipal Judge Faith Hill. To say that the strawberry blonde Murphy was inexperienced is an understatement. After all, she's only 15 years old. The closest the Madison High School sophomore had come to studying law was reading about the U.S. Constitution in civics class.

By all accounts, Murphy should not have been dragged into court on this sultry day in early July. For this she had Dallas City Attorney Sam Lindsay to thank.

It started back in November, when an African-American classmate in Murphy's history class called her a "redneck peckerwood." One thing led to another. Murphy attempted to protect herself as the boy lunged at her, and she inadvertently scratched him with a pencil.

The fight landed both students in the principal's office for a stern lecture. The principal told the youngsters he didn't think disciplinary action was warranted, according to Murphy and her father, James. Ron Price, the school's youth action officer--who would later be elected to the Dallas school board--says he told the duo the same thing after he counseled them and got them both to apologize.

"They were friends again an hour later," says Price.
So it came as quite a surprise when the city sent Murphy a citation accusing her of assaulting the boy, which carried a fine of up to $500. Both the principal and Price assured Murphy and her father that the case certainly would be dismissed. So it came as an even bigger shock to learn that the city attorney's office was going to vigorously pursue the case. Of course, it didn't take Murphy long to learn what lots of other folks in Dallas already know--that Lindsay and his underlings are far from formidable opponents.

Murphy and the boy appeared in court three times--the last for the jury trial, in which Murphy was up against not one but two lawyers from the city attorney's office. Murphy's dad, who is an electrician, couldn't afford an attorney, so he asked to represent his daughter himself. But the judge forbade him on the grounds that he was not qualified. The judge didn't have any qualms about letting Misty represent herself, however.

Although she had heard the old adage that a person who represents himself in court has a fool for a client, Murphy quickly discovered that that doesn't necessarily hold true if your legal opponent happens to be Sam Lindsay or his emissaries. After an hour-and-a-half trial, during which the boy said he did not want to be there, the jury found Misty Murphy not guilty.

Losing a pointless misdemeanor case to a 15-year-old is merely the latest embarrassment for the city attorney's office. Over the past few years, Lindsay has mishandled a zoning lawsuit that wound up costing taxpayers $5 million, been upbraided by a federal judge for helping the city violate state open meetings laws, and helped paper over apparent conflicts of interest involving the mayor.

Lindsay's inauspicious track record is just one reason mouths fell open in Dallas political and legal circles last week when the Texas congressional delegation recommended Lindsay for a lifelong appointment as a federal judge.

Lindsay is the fourth black candidate in the past seven years to be recommended for a judge's post that has remained unfilled since it was created. It's fair to say that the three previous candidates--who had Ivy League backgrounds and federal prosecutorial and defense experience--were much stronger than Lindsay, but none made it through the confirmation process.

Lindsay's nomination appears to be predicated on the belief that only an innocuous, undistinguished lawyer will be able to survive the tricky political waters that have sunk three others ahead of him.

"No one considers Sam a stellar lawyer," says a local attorney and prominent member of the Democratic Party.

Lindsay's candidacy is being pushed with Herculean effort by his old University of Texas Law School buddy, Mayor Ron Kirk, for reasons that remain unclear. It has met with disbelief and dismay from Democratic Party leaders and black elected officials and activists, the majority of whom thought Dallas attorney Kevin Wiggins deserved the nod.

A graduate of Harvard and of Stanford Law School, Wiggins is a defense attorney who served a stint as a state appellate judge. Lindsay's qualifications pale in comparison, his detractors say. They say Lindsay has not paid his dues in the party, and that he is too closely aligned with the business establishment. Beyond those issues, there are questions about whether Lindsay has what it takes to do the job as city attorney, much less as federal judge.

Some of the higher-profile cases Lindsay has handled do give one pause for concern. Take the Cinemark Tinseltown case, for instance--for which the city taxpayers wound up taking a $5 million hit. That was the case where Cinemark wanted to build an 18-screen movie theater and restaurant next to a residential neighborhood in North Dallas. The neighbors objected, and seven city council members and former Mayor Steve Bartlett sided with the neighbors and voted against the theater, claiming it was not a permitted use under the city's zoning ordinance.

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