Bench press

A pack of well-heeled lawyers calls for the head of mercurial Dallas Judge John Marshall

Nearly a hundred lawyers filled the Routh Street Brewery's private party room one hot evening last summer. The faux rustic setting -- hewn limestone walls, antler-trimmed cabinets, and weathered rafters -- echoed with the clink of beer steins, the hum of conversation.

In attendance were many of the city's top plaintiffs' lawyers, the side of the legal world representing patients against doctors, injured workers against employers, the guy whose van got rear-ended against the other guy's insurance company. Powered by multimillion-dollar contingency fees, some rank among the heaviest political hitters in town.

Despite the festive backdrop and flowing beer, lawyer Fred Baron was not in a party mood.

Mark Graham
Judge John Marshall explains why he's teed off so many lawyers: If you've been around as long as he has, the grudges pile up.
Mark Graham
Judge John Marshall explains why he's teed off so many lawyers: If you've been around as long as he has, the grudges pile up.

The meeting had been called to decide whether 14th District Court Judge John Marshall, a quirky individualist with a habit of making news, should be targeted for defeat in the March 14 Republican primary. Baron, who recently hosted a $25,000-a-couple fundraiser with President Clinton at his $5.2 million walled estate in Preston Hollow, was among the most influential lawyers in the room. And he made no secret of the fact he wants Marshall's head.

"He isn't running on all eight cylinders," Baron said later. "He's gone over the edge."

On one level, the meeting had all the markings of a beer-hall revolt, a rare event considering that lawyers rarely rise up so publicly against sitting state court judges.

It's more like a "vendetta," says Marshall campaign manager Brian Mayes. Baron, he says, wants retribution for the judge's decision to refer Baron's 50-lawyer firm to the grand jury in 1998 over alleged coaching of clients in asbestos cases. Baron & Budd was embarrassed nationally by a paralegal's memo that outlined for clients the correct answers to critical questions in their health-related damages claims. Former employees admitted to implanting memories while preparing witnesses, but the grand jury took no action against the firm.

Baron, known as the "king of toxic torts" for the wealthy practice he has built, has only contempt for Marshall, although he insists it has nothing to do with the coaching matter. Never mind that Baron was not at all exercised about Marshall four years ago during the judge's previous re-election bid.

Shirley Sutherland, a board member of the Dallas Trial Lawyers Association, the group holding the brewery event, says it appeared Baron packed it with associates and like-minded lawyers. "He was pushing for a vote to target Marshall," she recalls. But as an equal and opposite force, lawyer Frank Branson was also in the room. Branson, known for his record-setting judgments in personal injury lawsuits involving everything from plane crashes to faulty amusement park rides, moves in the same lofty universe as Baron, and is just as influential in Bar politics and beyond. Both have raised millions for the national Democrats.

And Branson happens to like Marshall. "I said I found him to be a good judge, a man of high integrity who's been fair and well-versed on the law. My clients have always been treated fairly," Branson recalls telling the group.

Ultimately, talk at the brewery meeting got down to whether to target Marshall's race with campaign money from a newly organized political action committee. The plaintiffs' lawyers wanted a club to wield against judges they deemed overly friendly with corporate defendants and insurance companies, which is a popular stance in the courthouse in as conservative and business-friendly a place as Dallas.

With the trial lawyers in the room roughly split down the middle, the group reached no conclusion about Marshall that day in late July. They didn't do any better six months later, in early February, when a group of lawyers controlling the PAC met at an Oak Lawn seafood restaurant and took no action to spend the $50,000 they had raised. "We don't talk about it anymore," says medical malpractice specialist Bill Liebbe, the group's president. "It was causing too much division."

Judging John Marshall has turned out to be a difficult job, to be sure. Some say he's erratic and far from impartial. Others say he's just eccentric, but driven by conscience.

Whatever the verdict, enough well-heeled lawyers are after his hide that he's landed in the most talked-about judicial race this year.

Known more widely for his rulings halting live pigeon shoots at the Dallas Gun Club last December, and for temporarily stopping the cutting of trees at Old East Dallas' Tenison Park golf course in late 1998, Marshall is in the toughest race of his 19-year career. In effectively one-party Dallas County, the GOP primary constitutes the whole race. He's on the ropes because forces at the courthouse have gathered against him and reached critical mass. Enough money, political energy, and big-name support is behind his opponent to ensure a close contest.

Lawyer-supplied campaign money has flowed evenly to Marshall and his challenger, big-firm lawyer Mary Murphy -- $151,056 and $144,340, respectively, to date. "John has always been John," says Tom Pauken, a former state GOP chairman, a lawyer, and a Marshall supporter. "What's happened is that a number of firms on both sides [plaintiffs and defense] are unhappy with the results they've been getting down there."

Described as quirky, "a little different," Marshall is far more comfortable than most judges at making bold calls and making up his own mind about what constitutes the civil law. To supporters, this is called being "slightly mercurial" or "having an agile mind." Mike Parham, who handles serious injury and death cases, says being hard to predict isn't especially a fault. "He is a bit of a wild card, but when he calls them, he isn't predictable for or against either side of the docket." Besides, Parham says, as a lawyer fighting for underdogs, he likes a man who will take on an institution such as the Dallas Gun Club. "It's a Who's Who of Highland Park. Executives with shotguns. It took a lot of courage to do that. You make a lot of powerful enemies and not a lot of friends. Who cares about pigeons, anyway?"

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