Benched

Judge Brenda Prewitt resigns as controversy rattles the Dallas Municipal Court

For most people charged with a petty misdemeanor such as speeding, showing up at the drab courtrooms of Dallas Municipal Court is an annoying experience.

Long waits generated by the glutted city bureaucracy are not made any easier by coming face-to-face with municipal judges, whose heavy caseloads sometimes inspire them to deliver justice with an attitude.

Some people, however, occasionally find a friendly face on the bench. Some people, that is, like Marcia Prewitt, who was stopped while driving 59 mph in a 40-mph zone in April 1997.

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Marcia Prewitt happens to be the daughter-in-law of Municipal Court Judge Brenda Prewitt, who just happened to intervene on the speeding citation earlier this year--after the case already was considered closed.

A complaint about Judge Prewitt's action prompted an investigation by City Auditor Robert Melton, who in March concluded that Prewitt had committed an "apparent code of ethics violation."

This week, the Dallas City Council will decide whether to reappoint 26 full- and part-time municipal judges, basing their decisions on recommendations made in March by the city's Judicial Nominating Commission. Of those judges, the commission recommended that all be reappointed, save one.

Surely, the lone standout was Judge Brenda Prewitt?
Nope.
The unlucky jurist is Gustavo Gonzales, who stands accused of being "defiant" because he didn't want to repay $5,766.51 in excess salary he received through a clerical error that was no fault of his own.

And what of Judge Prewitt?
Prewitt submitted her resignation last Friday--just five days before she was about to face the scrutiny of a hostile city council, where some members were preparing to use her apparent lapse in ethics as leverage to keep Gonzales on the bench.

Although Gonzales has, reluctantly, repaid the money, the council may still give him the heave-ho during Wednesday's meeting.

"I'm absolutely stunned," says council member Donna Blumer, who had not heard of Prewitt's resignation until she spoke with the Dallas Observer last Friday. Until then, Blumer was considering whether to introduce a motion to block Prewitt's reappointment while throwing her support behind Gonzales.

"Maybe it's for the best," Blumer says.
Yet the disrobing of both judges gives a glimpse into a system that was ready to allow unethical behavior to go undisciplined as long as the city's tax dollars weren't at stake.

How Gonzales' and Prewitt's reappointments became so acrimonious is difficult to determine, because the controversies are considered personnel matters and have mostly been discussed behind closed doors.

In addition, the parties involved aren't revealing many details.
Still, the judges' actions are relatively clear-cut.
First there is Gonzales, a lawyer appointed to the municipal bench in January 1995. At the time, Gonzales was supposed to be paid $60,164.76 annually, according to the pay rates the city sets for rookie municipal judges. Instead, the city accidentally paid Gonzales $64,376.31.

Ed Cloutman, a lawyer representing Gonzales on the matter, says that when Gonzales interviewed for the position, he was told he would be paid an annual salary ranging from $63,000 to $72,000. So Gonzales didn't bat an eye when the inflated checks started coming.

"After he got the selection notice, the next thing he gets is a notification from the personnel office indicating what his salary would be," says Cloutman. The amount was within the range that Gonzales was told he would earn. "He wished it were more, but what the heck?"

Gonzales declined to comment and referred questions to Cloutman.
About 17 months later, in May 1996, the city discovered the error, which by then had amounted to $5,766.51 in excess salary. City officials informed Gonzales of their mistake, adjusted his salary, and told him he had to give the extra money back.

The city offered to let Gonzales return the money in reasonable payments, but Gonzales didn't think he should have to pay it back at all.

Acting on Gonzales' behalf, Cloutman began a debate with the city that dragged on for more than a year, according to correspondence that Cloutman disclosed.

Initially, Cloutman argued that the city should forgive the debt because it was the city's fault, not Gonzales'. Later, Cloutman suggested that an independent arbitrator should settle the dispute.

City Attorney Sam Lindsay and Judge Michael O'Neal, who oversees the administration of the municipal court, would have none of it, according to letters they sent to Cloutman and Gonzales. (Both Lindsay and O'Neal declined to discuss the subject in any detail.)

"While I appreciate the equity issues raised in your letter of April 10, 1997, I see no legal basis upon which to make an exception for Judge Gonzales," Lindsay wrote Cloutman on May 1, 1997. "[T]he money paid to him was public money, entrusted to City government by the taxpayers. I would be remiss in my duties as City Attorney if I did not request repayment of those public funds."

Gonzales remained defiant until March 23, 1998, when the Judicial Nominating Commission voted unanimously to recommend that he not be reappointed to the bench because of his refusal to repay the money.

The 15-member commission consists of volunteers, who are appointed by city council members and tasked with nominating municipal judges for their initial appointments and reviewing them for reappointment as their terms expire every two years. The commission has no enforcement power, but its recommendations carry weight with the city council.

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