The man who would be judge

U.S. Attorney Paul Coggins is no longer seeking a federal bench, but his days of public service are far from over

Paul Coggins, the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Texas, raised suspicions about his political plans when he announced earlier this month that he was dropping his bid to become a federal judge. "I just decided it wasn't the way I wanted to go," Coggins says. "I had been mulling it over for months. It is a great job, but not for me now."

Yet just six months ago, in June, after a delegation of high-ranking Texas Democratic congressmen recommended to the president that Coggins be appointed to the federal bench, he seemed gung-ho. "I'm very flattered, and I appreciate the confidence they've placed in me," he told a Dallas Morning News reporter. Democratic Congressman Martin Frost, who led the Texas delegation, also remembers that Coggins was enthusiastic about accepting the judgeship and says his recent turnaround "came as a surprise."

Other Coggins supporters such as Charlie Blau, his former law partner and friend, found Coggins' decision abrupt--and were at a loss to explain it. "I thought he would have been a good judge," says Blau, who worked to get Coggins' name on the list for the bench, but only learned about his change of heart by reading it in the newspaper. "We used big chits to get his name in. I was disappointed."

The nominating process, of course, can seem never-ending, is brazenly political, and can be as invasive personally as an impeachment hearing. And Coggins was not without powerful political detractors. Press reports at the time of Coggins' congressional recommendation mentioned, for instance, W.A. "Tex" Moncrief, a Fort Worth oil tycoon who federal officials in North Texas targeted in a controversial tax case for which Moncrief paid out a $23 million settlement. Moncrief later made national headlines when he appeared before a congressional sub-committee castigating these federal officials for their Gestapo-like tactics--the same officials that Coggins had once publicly praised.

In North Texas, Clinton judicial nominees have been anything but shoo-ins. Before Coggins, Frost had recommended Michael Schattman, an Arlington lawyer, but his confirmation was blocked by Republican Senator Phil Gramm, who has the ultimate power to object to the president's choice of Texas federal judges. Schattman, who recently became general counsel for the Small Business Administration, says he doesn't believe Gramm opposed Coggins' nomination.

Coggins, a lifelong Democrat who campaigned for Bill Clinton, insists his decision did not hinge on any threat to his confirmation from Gramm or any other Republican. "I never even finished the paperwork [to be formally nominated]," he says.

Rather, Coggins says his decision reflects the enjoyment he gets out of his current job and his concerns about how he would adjust to life on the bench. The prospect of living a federal judge's life scared him, he says. Its lifetime tenure, its formality, and its isolation were all facets of the job that Coggins, on reflection, says he found "pretty daunting."

Serving on the bench would mean succumbing to "a pretty monastic lifestyle," he says. "You have to resign from lots of organizations and boards and stop fraternizing with other lawyers. Those are all the things I like about my job now."

Coggins admits that timing played a strategic role in his decision, because he wanted to give Frost the opportunity to get another nomination through the confirmation process before the next presidential election. "I talked to Frost, and it was a hard call to make," he says.

Frost concedes that in the end, he had to press Coggins to make the decision faster than Coggins had originally intended. "He had indicated to me that was the direction he was heading," Frost says. "And I said, 'If that's what you are going to do, then go ahead and do it.'" Since the Senate rarely considers judicial nominations in presidential election years, Frost needed to get another nominee through the Senate well before the year 2000.

Four days after Coggins declared he would take his name out of the running, Frost announced that the Democratic congressional representatives would recommend Barbara Lynn, a well-respected civil trial lawyer from the Dallas firm of Carrington, Coleman, Sloman & Blumenthal. If confirmed, Lynn, who heads the American Bar Association litigation section and ranked first in her class at SMU law school, would be the only woman judge (there is one female magistrate) on the Dallas federal bench.

But for the 47-year-old U.S. Attorney, who was appointed to his current post in 1993, a federal judgeship just might have been too apolitical an arena to spend the rest of his life. Coggins and his wife, Regina Montoya, a Dallas lawyer and TV commentator, have both been extremely active in supporting the Clintons in previous campaigns. In Clinton's first term, Montoya served as White House liaison to state and local governments. She was recently selected on a temporary basis as an advisor to the U.S. Delegation of the United Nations General Assembly.

Looking ahead to the next presidential election, Coggins already has close ties to Vice President Albert Gore and former New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley--both men high on the list of Democratic presidential hopefuls. Bradley wrote the forward to a non-fiction book that Coggins penned with another author titled Out of Bounds: How the American Sports Establishment is Being Driven by Greed and Hypocrisy. Coggins also worked for Gore during his unsuccessful 1988 presidential bid--right up until the Tennessean withdrew.

Could he be gunning for a Cabinet post? For the job of U.S. Attorney General, perhaps? Coggins laughs when asked about these or any political aspirations he might secretly harbor. "I haven't made any decisions about what role I will play in the next presidential election," he says. Then he measures his words like a true politician. "It is accurate to say I have close ties to both potential candidates.

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