By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
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But it's precisely his "procedural legal terrorism" that has invoked the wrath of so many judges and ultimately the State Bar Grievance Committee. And oddly, besides the Flores case, it's not his civil rights litigation that gets him into trouble, but rather his run-of-the-mill personal-injury practice. Of course, with Bobby Wightman-Cervantes, issues other lawyers might consider trivial rise to the level of constitutional importance when filtered through his hyper-inflated sense of injustice.
Wightman-Cervantes represented Glenda Lane in a car-accident case, which he believed he had settled with a Farmers Insurance adjuster for $7,500. In later discussions with the adjuster, Wightman-Cervantes says, she reneged on their original deal and offered him only $7,000. "I should have told [my client] to take the lesser offer and eaten the rest out of my attorney's fees," he says.
Instead he sued Farmers for breach of the settlement agreement in Dallas Judge David Godbey's court. Wightman-Cervantes grew outraged after a pre-trial hearing in front of Godbey, claiming that lawyers with the Dallas firm of Touchstone, Johnston, Bernays, Beall & Smith had destroyed evidence of the adjuster's settlement notes and that the judge tolerated their contemptuous behavior in court. In a May 21, 1997, letter he wrote to Godbey, Wightman-Cervantes essentially accused the judge of being bought and paid for by the insurance defense bar.
"You are either one of the biggest idiots to take the bench, or you are hopelessly corrupt...I will not tolerate a judge who allows attorneys to disgrace the profession with outright lies and deception. The bottom line is, you are about to have your career turned upside down."
Wightman-Cervantes filed a motion to recuse Godbey and sued the judge and the Touchstone law firm in 1997. He accused them of a cover-up and complicity regarding the destruction of evidence, along with perjury and fraud -- accusations they vehemently deny. Wightman-Cervantes sought $50 million on his client's behalf, though he would later dismiss the lawsuit against Godbey.
On the day he received the letter, Godbey, who has the highest Dallas Bar poll approval rating of any district judge in the county, filed a grievance against Wightman-Cervantes with the State Bar. The judge also instigated contempt charges against him. "This is not a matter of my personal sensitivity," Godbey says. "I felt I had no choice. I had an obligation to report to the State Bar conduct that is unethical or calls into question a lawyer's fitness to practice...I believe he needs mental care, and I hope he gets it."
After months of legal wrangling on the contempt charge, retired Dallas Judge Leonard Hoffman sentenced Wightman-Cervantes to 90 days in jail. But Hoffman was willing to let Wightman-Cervantes off the hook if he would recant his accusations and apologize. Like his ancestor Edward the heretic, who couldn't help but speak his mind, Wightman-Cervantes was willing to go down in flames. He refused to apologize, claiming he had a right to criticize judges under the First Amendment. The problem is, no judge -- state or federal -- has yet agreed with his constitutional claim, and his contempt citation, though still pending, stands.
"I will stand my ground regardless of personal consequences even if it means going to jail," Wightman-Cervantes says. "The Constitution has no meaning if we are not willing to stand our ground."
It only underscored Wightman-Cervantes' conspiratorial theme when Godbey assigned his friend and former colleague Bobby Rubarts to prosecute the contempt charge. Certainly, judges who come from big law firms (Godbey and Rubarts both worked at Hughes and Luce) are destined to rule on cases involving those firms. And just as certainly, a system that elects judges can't help but seem corrupt when the lawyers who contribute heavily to judicial campaigns later appear before those same judges in court. But active collusion between lawyers and judges? Obstruction of justice? Destruction of evidence? These are the particulars of Wightman-Cervantes' incendiary accusations -- accusations that have cast him in the role of legal heretic and caused others to question his sanity.
"I could be wrong, but I am fighting to restore integrity to our courts," Wightman-Cervantes says. "What do opinion polls tell us about judges and lawyers? They are disfavored. So what are we talking about, mass paranoia?"
But to many of the lawyers who oppose him, his methods are decidedly less high-minded: After an adverse ruling by the court, they say, he will file a recusal motion or a lawsuit against the judge, hoping to bait the judge into bias by branding him a "tyrant" or a "whore for the insurance companies" or a "defendant" in one of his lawsuits. The result is procedural gridlock, one recusal motion following another, one judge deciding whether another judge can be impartial. Rarely will a case get heard on its merits. Rarely does he win these procedural debacles. Delay, abusive threats, frivolous filings -- all are part of his vindictive campaign to terrorize the legal system.
"Simply because a judge rules against you, it's not grounds to recuse him," says Dallas attorney Ralph "Red Dog" Jones. "And anytime opposing counsel does something Wightman doesn't like, he sues them too."
In a dispute stemming from a car accident that originally involved a $10,000 insurance claim, Wightman-Cervantes sued three Tarrant County judges, Jones, and Jones' client, Dallas mediator Gary Berman, who was brought in to help resolve the case. Wightman-Cervantes sent a letter to all the Dallas district judges, castigating Berman for intimidating his client into settling the case and asking the judges to investigate Berman before assigning him any more cases to mediate. Berman sued Wightman-Cervantes for defamation.