Bench press

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

Marshall says that's why he takes such a dim view of lawyers making false statements in his courtroom -- why he referred Baron's firm to the grand jury when it appeared from a paralegal's memo that witnesses were being prepared illegally. "You can talk to four or five lawyers out of this building at random and ask them, 'Which judge are you least likely to want to risk having a false statement on an affidavit?'"

Marshall went on to get a master's in history at Vanderbilt University and worked as an instructor in the Skylab space program, writing textbooks for engineers and technicians, before returning to Dallas and SMU law school. Classmates there remember him as the type of eager student who would make eyes roll when he began to speak, usually at length, and he would do so often enough. "People say he became judge so he'd have a captive audience to listen to him," says one SMU alum.

After five years in private practice, Marshall says he was recruited by then-county GOP chairman Fred Meyer to run in what was still a county dominated by Democrats -- but not for long. He was swept into office in the Reagan landslide. "I've always been a Republican," Marshall says, adding that he cast his first vote in a presidential election for Barry Goldwater in 1964.

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Mark Graham
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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.

He can't emphasize this enough, given that one of his camp's main campaign strategies is to underline his opponent's shallow Republican roots.

On the bench, Marshall says he has followed his sense of principle and ruled decisively. In 1988, for instance, he ruled in a case of an AIDS patient attempting to obtain the drug AZT through Parkland hospital that the hospital had an obligation to dispense the drug, even though it was experimental at the time. "It was the right thing to do," Marshall says.

"You can ask anyone in town," he says, "Does Judge Marshall look over his shoulder and worry about being reversed before he rules on a case? I think the answer will be 'no.' He's not going to worry about the Court of Appeals." That attitude has him leading the county in appeals, as well as the number of appeals in which his rulings have been overturned.

Marshall would like to see himself above reproach, but his own ethics have been questioned in recent years.

In a story first reported by the Dallas Observer in 1997, Marshall faced accusations of favoritism after he had granted a client of the Bickel & Brewer firm a nearly $1 million summary judgment. Marshall was alleged to have accepted a limo ride to the firm's luxury suite at a Cowboys game and his court clerk received a $250 watch as a graduation present from a Bickel & Brewer paralegal while the case was pending. The same paralegal also bought a catamaran from Marshall, which he had advertised at the time for $1,500.

Although everyone denied wrongdoing, Marshall recused himself, and a visiting judge threw out the summary judgment. When those facts, which weren't in dispute, were presented to the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, the panel voted in February 1998 that nothing inappropriate had occurred.

"The facts were true," Marshall says now. "The innuendo was not."

In other words, Marshall can do things that appear untoward, but because he is so ethical, appearance is all there is.

Bickel says now the whole thing was much ado about nothing. He went to law school with Marshall and considers him a friend. "I think it's ridiculous for anyone who knows Judge Marshall to believe in good faith you could gain favor with him by doing anything for him," says Bickel, who is supporting Marshall. "He's his own man."

Marshall landed in another ethical flap last October, when it was reported that he had conducted a public opinion poll about his ruling to protect trees at the Tenison Golf Course. The telephone survey took place just days before the judge was set to rule for a second time on the trees -- after an appeals court ruled that the people attempting to stop the cutting did not have legal standing to sue. Respondents were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with the judge's December 1998 decision to halt the cutting.

This is another case of correct facts, wrong spin, Marshall insists. "People in the public eye take polls all the time in various ways," he says. "Do those questions condition the decisions, is that the issue? The answer is no."

Marshall's campaign manager Mayes, who says the poll was his idea, says the point of the survey was to determine Marshall's name recognition and whether he was communicating his message effectively.

Although the poll had been conducted while the Tenison case was pending, Marshall says he did not know he was going to rule again on it and did not know the results of the poll when the matter came up. He ended up recusing himself but will not release the results of his poll -- which continues to be an issue in the campaign. A source close to his opponent alleges it was a "push poll" containing a variety of negative statements about his opponent, which would explain why he has refused to release the results. Mayes and Marshall say it was not a push poll.

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