Bench press

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

There could be no spin, however, to explain such ethical lapses as the mints. The little rolls of mint wafers Marshall popped into his mouth, one by one, during what stretched on to be two two-hour interviews. At the end, he offered his visitor a bunch of rolls from a dish on his console table. Packaged in red, white, and blue paper, they read, "Re-elect Judge Marshall."

It might not be covered in any college honor code, but state penal code section 39.02 prohibits elected officials from using their offices or time for non-state purposes. Bill Moss, an attorney with the Texas Ethics Commission, says he's pretty sure that includes a judge electioneering in his office with a bowl full of mints.

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.

Ask Marshall's camp why he's facing such a fight this spring, and they mention two words: Fred Baron.

"Marshall has never been a friend to the big defense firms," says Bickel. "But this year you add to the mix his high-profile scuffle with the largest plaintiffs' firm in town, and the forces converge."

As early as last spring, Baron was casting about, looking for a candidate to back. "I talked to half a dozen people. We were looking for any candidate we could get who would be qualified to run against John Marshall, no doubt," he says. "It's a major sacrifice, giving up a lucrative practice to take a bench."

Among them was Mary Murphy, who started out as a paralegal, went to SMU law school, graduated at the top of her class, and landed a job at Jenkens & Gilchrist. A few years ago, she took a year off to work as a volunteer civil court master, handling all the stuff the judges hate -- discovery disputes and the like. She did it to prove to the county commissioners that hiring court masters would help grease the wheels of the court system.

Murphy acknowledges that Baron tried to recruit her but says she only made her decision when other lawyers asked her to run. Those circumstances have Marshall's camp characterizing Murphy as "the one Baron & Budd picked to run" -- a phrase that particularly agitates Baron. "I have never seen a campaign run with more inappropriate innuendo, to use a mild term. I had nothing to do with getting Mary Murphy to run. That's a lie, a complete and absolute lie," he says. Of course, once she was in the contest, his firm was near the front of the line of contributors with a $5,000 donation -- the maximum allowed by state law.

As a former partner in a big defense firm who is married to Greg Huffman, also a lawyer in a big establishment firm, Murphy doesn't appear on the surface to be a candidate hand-picked by any plaintiffs' lawyer.

Still, Mayes sees another link. Despite listing on her résumé memberships in the Dallas County Republican Party, Park Cities Republican Women, and Dallas Republican Career Women, Murphy was a solid Democrat only four years ago. In 1996, during President Clinton's reelection campaign, she gave $1,000 to the Democratic National Committee.

"We welcome her to the party," says Mayes. "But from her voting record and contribution record, she's a true blue Democrat."

Although party loyalty issues have little to do with the real forces behind this election -- a revolt of some big-money lawyers -- it could have more effect at the polls, where all the voters will be GOP.

As for Murphy, she says she's running because of what is truly wrong with Marshall's court. "The [Bar polls] accurately reflect the problems in this court," she says. "He defends his 50 percent approval rating by saying he's been there a long time and the people who are opposed to him have lost in his court. That explanation only works if you're ruling for the same 50 percent all the time. I am running because I want to stop judicial activism and the ignoring of the law."

Marshall says that's not his style at all. "I don't call it judicial activism," he says. "I would say I'm someone willing to make decisions and not punt. Judicial activism is anything but Pontius Pilate. I'm not going to wash my hands."

Former Dallas Observer staff writer Ann Zimmerman contributed to this report.

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