By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Michael Ellis doesn't deny that he sometimes has a heavy foot when he's on the highway. Just don't try to give him a ticket for it, not if you're a municipal court. Do, and he just might make a federal case out of it.
On July 7, 1994, Garland police clocked Ellis' car traveling 72 mph in a 55-mph zone and wrote Ellis a ticket. Four more citations from Garland would follow in the next month, along with another in Carrollton for failure to have a valid vehicle inspection sticker. Rather than pay his $90 fine in Carrollton, Ellis appealed. When a municipal judge turned down his appeal, Ellis filed a civil suit and began a foray into the law.
It's been a long trip that promises to get longer for the 42-year-old from Fort Worth, who admits he doesn't much trust lawyers.
Ellis has represented himself in lawsuits against Garland and Carrollton for five years because, he claims, lawyers are reluctant to sue other lawyers, and it's lawyers he holds responsible for what he calls a "conspiracy to supplant lawfully created Texas Municipal Courts with so-called 'municipal courts of record.'"
Created by cities under the authority of the Texas Legislature, municipal courts of record try misdemeanor cases, but with one major distinction. In Texas' traditional municipal courts, no court reporter records the proceedings, so anyone who wants to appeal a ruling simply seeks a new trial at a higher court. That became a cumbersome, expensive process for city prosecutors faced with determined defendants and resulted in many cases being dismissed.
"About 10 years ago, the court system was changed around so that many cities were empowered to create a court of record, which is still a municipal court," Garland first assistant city attorney Brad Neighbor says. "What the Legislature has said is that we're going to treat a municipal court as any other court: You have to appeal like any other court by the traditional means. You have to have a record and show how the trial court erred. You don't just get a new trial from scratch. You have to say why the result was wrong under the law."
Ellis contends the Legislature violated the Texas Constitution by granting cities the power to create courts of record, something he says only the Legislature itself can do. He also argues that the state constitution requires municipal court prosecutors to be state's attorneys, rather than city employees.
"There's nothing in the constitution that says that," Neighbor says. The Legislature has traditionally delegated its authority to district, appeals, and municipal courts.
In his federal lawsuit, Ellis also claimed that the municipal courts set up barriers to keep defendants from filing appeals, hiding the rules in complex legal jargon so the average person will simply pay unjust fines. "In order to appeal a case, you must have a record of the proceedings. What they don't tell you is that in a court of record you have to ask for those proceedings to be recorded," Ellis says, his voice rising in agitation.
After losing his case in Carrollton, Ellis filed a civil suit in March 1998 against the city naming city attorneys Karen Brophy, Lynn Nunns, and Lynn Bolish along with city Judge Michael Drewry as defendants. He filed a similar case against Garland earlier this year, and the two cases were later combined.
U.S. District Judge Joe Fish dismissed the case against Carrollton, saying that Ellis had no facts to support his claims. Undaunted, Ellis now has an appeal pending before the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. If he loses there, he says, he intends to take his case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Why go to all of this trouble?
Not, Ellis says, because he's an anarchist or member of the separatist group the Republic of Texas, as Neighbor suggests.
Ellis laughs. "The lawyers themselves are the anarchists, and what we would want to do is re-establish the constitution," he says. "We're not interested in the anarchy lawyers are putting forth -- particularly the Garland ones. What we want to do is obey the constitution as the rule of the land. The city attorneys you spoke to have no proper authority to even be operating as state's attorneys."
The "we" Ellis refers to is a small number of friends who believe that Ellis is right.
Bailey met Ellis four years ago at a meeting of Texans Citizens Concerned with Legal Reform, which no longer exists. Bailey, her husband, and their five children had recently moved from Odessa to Grand Prairie, where a city ordinance required that their two vans passed environmental inspections. The vans didn't pass. Bailey says the family couldn't afford to buy a new vehicle, and they received several tickets. The couple didn't know what to do until Ellis showed them the law and encouraged them to defend themselves.
Ellis is not a lawyer, but he has put in hundreds of hours studying the law at the Southern Methodist Law Library. An educational consultant for an Austin-based company that produces software for school districts, the last time he had anything to do with the law was his first semester in college in Illinois, when he was a pre-law major. He says he was "systemized" then -- one of those "America, love it or leave it kind of people."