Impossible dreamer

Fearless reformer or legal terrorist? Bobby Wightman-Cervantes makes a run for the Senate. The Texas Bar says he should have his head examined.

He did become friends with Tony Olvera, a law student who worked in the school's legal clinic and helped Wightman-Cervantes handle his federal case against the Army. "Robert is an easy person to be friends with," says Olvera, now a lawyer in Dallas. "It's when you know him on a confrontational basis that you grow to despise him."

In 1990, while still in law school, he also filed a lawsuit in a Houston federal court on his own behalf seeking to have the Texas sodomy statute declared unconstitutional. In an 18-page affidavit, which graphically details much of his sexual history, he summarizes the injury he has suffered as a result of the state's criminalizing homosexuality.

"Many gays fight the depression with sex. I have done that," he swears in his affidavit. "Many gays fight the depression with drugs. I have done that. Many gays fight the depression with fighting back. I've done that. For me, fighting back is a form of therapy. It gives me hope."

Mark Graham
Former state Rep. Charles Gandy from Mesquite is clearly the candidate of choice of Democratic Party activists for the U.S. Senate. He says his opponent Wightman-Cervantes is "his own worst enemy."
John Anderson
Former state Rep. Charles Gandy from Mesquite is clearly the candidate of choice of Democratic Party activists for the U.S. Senate. He says his opponent Wightman-Cervantes is "his own worst enemy."

When the federal judge stayed the proceedings because a similar case had been filed in state court, Wightman-Cervantes fought back. He unsuccessfully appealed the decision to a three-judge panel for the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Then he sued all four judges -- his first taste of this tactic -- claiming that because the federal judges dismissed his case and deferred to the state courts, their actions denied him, as a homosexual, access to the federal courts.

He lost.

In 1991, he returned to the Dallas area as a licensed attorney. From his home in Arlington, with scarcely enough money to pay the phone bill, much less the rent, the law office of Robert Wightman was open for business.

Robert Wightman, civil rights lawyer, had little trouble attracting clients to his cause. Immediately upon hanging his shingle, he began advertising in the gay press, seeking out those who had been victims of sexual discrimination. In the criminal courts, he handled public-lewdness cases, claiming remarkable success at convincing judges that engaging in sexual contact in public was more a "coming out" issue than a crime. In the family courts, he fought to keep sexual orientation out of custody cases.

Before Wightman-Cervantes agreed to represent Timothy Spruel, the businessman had been ordered by two judges never to mention his live-in partner in front of his two young girls, and Spruel had to build a separate entrance to his Irving home so his partner would never be seen.

"Bob was really a bulldog on the case," Spruel says. "He took the case all the way to the Texas Supreme Court, and we finally got all the restrictions removed. I was able to integrate my life, which was very meaningful for me."

Through his friendship with Tony Olvera, Wightman-Cervantes met state Rep. Roberto Alonzo, who was chairman of the Mexican-American Democrats. For more than 20 years, MAD had been recognized as the official Hispanic caucus of the state Democratic Party. But a vocal faction of the organization, led by Dallas lawyer and Hispanic activist Adelfa Callejo, had grown disenchanted with Alonzo's leadership. In January 1996, Callejo, Domingo Garcia (Alonzo's former law partner), and other prominent Hispanic leaders broke away from MAD and formed the Tejano Democrats. Garcia announced that same month that he would run against his old partner for state representative. The rift between the two former friends ripped the Hispanic political community apart and resulted in numerous lawsuits between warring factions. Wightman-Cervantes stepped into the breach, often representing the interests of the Mexican-American Democrats -- with a vengeance.

"He may be Roberto Alonzo's pit bull," says attorney Jose Angel Gutierrez, a MAD member and founder of the La Raza Unida Party. "He can be eccentric, but he is good with the law...and he's not afraid of the judges."

Wightman-Cervantes flagrantly risked the court's contempt in October 1996 when he represented Diana Flores, who had been sued by William Velasco after he lost a runoff election to Flores for Dallas County Community College trustee by 54 votes. Velasco, the Tejano candidate supported by Domingo Garcia, claimed Flores, the MAD candidate supported by Roberto Alonzo, had engaged in voter fraud and sought to set aside the election. Because Wightman-Cervantes refused to recognize the jurisdiction of visiting Judge Webb Biard over the case, he instructed Flores not to answer any of the judge's questions. The judge held Flores in contempt, and as Wightman began to leave the courtroom to post her bond, Biard also held Wightman in contempt, sentencing him to 30 days in jail. He spent only five hours behind bars. "If I know it's going to be a bad day," he says. "I keep a personal-recognizance bond in my briefcase."

Although Biard ruled against Flores, ordering a new election, she appealed, and Wightman-Cervantes' tactics, labeled by Garcia as "procedural legal terrorism," have managed to keep the case alive and Flores in office to this day. And Flores is currently running against Garcia in the Democratic primary for his seat in the Texas Legislature.

"If not for Bob Wightman," Diana Flores claims, "Domingo Garcia would have stolen the election from the people. Bob represented me knowing I was a single mom and didn't have any money to defend this lawsuit."

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