Forget the gray beards of the Dallas criminal bar: the Doug Mulders, the Vee Perinis, the Billy Ravkinds, the George Milners. Ignore the up-and-coming generation of lawyers: the Tom Millses, the Jay Ethingtons, the Brad Lollars. If you find yourself in the felony or misdemeanor soup, the man to dial may well be Dallas County Commissioner Kenneth Mayfield.
Since being elected in 1994, Mayfield, an attorney who practices law part time, has compiled an impressive batting average in criminal cases.
But a number of judges and lawyers at Frank Crowley Criminal Courts Building are beginning to wonder--anonymously at least--if Mayfield has corked his bat, so to speak. They see a conflict of interest in Mayfield's practice, since county commissioners hold the purse strings over the county's civil and criminal court system, the sheriff's department, and the Dallas County District Attorney's Office.
Unfortunately, neither Mayfield nor Texas law sees a similar problem.
"I get no special consideration," Mayfield insists. "None whatsoever. The only benefit I get is, sometimes I can get [judges] to set cases on a Wednesday so it doesn't interfere with commissioners court." (The commissioners meet on Tuesdays.)
Commissioners, who are paid $80,000 annually, are not required to possess law licenses, and in fact, only two do: Place 2 Commissioner Mike Cantrell and Place 4 Commissioner Mayfield.
Of those two, only Mayfield has continued to practice law since being elected. And while his former campaign manager claims Mayfield told the voters he would give up his practice if elected, Mayfield denies making the promise.
"I absolutely never said I was going to stop practicing law," Mayfield says. "I was very up-front about it. I did say I would be a full-time commissioner. And I am. Forty to 60 hours a week." (Mayfield says his law practice takes up "five to 10" hours beyond that.)
And practice he has--with astounding success. Ignoring those cases Mayfield was already handling when he became a commissioner, the former Cedar Hill school board president has taken on no fewer than 16 new felony and misdemeanor clients since January 1, 1995. Of those 16, five are still pending and 11 have been resolved.
Four of the 11 were tried before felony or misdemeanor judges sitting without juries; in all four cases, the judges found Mayfield's clients innocent. Among these lucky four were two misdemeanor DWI defendants, both of whom were stopped in the wee hours of the morning after police observed them speeding and weaving. Both men flunked the field sobriety quiz after refusing breath and blood tests. Nevertheless, they were found innocent by County Criminal Court Judges Jim Pruitt and Tom Fuller.
In a third case, a 60-year-old man was charged with lifting a fishing reel from a Wal-Mart; he, too, was found innocent by Fuller.
In the fourth and perhaps most disturbing case, the Dallas County District Attorney's Office charged a 40-year-old man with fondling a 14-year-old girl. (At the time of the alleged incident, the victim was 11.) In August, Visiting District Judge Gary Stephens Jr., sitting without a jury, found the defendant innocent of all charges.
In four other cases, Mayfield's clients pleaded guilty or entered no-contest pleas and received probated sentences. Among these were the cases of Ilija Zabic, an owner of Brother's Pizza on Montfort, whom Dallas police caught serving Miller Genuine Draft to three 16-year-old boys. (Police had received numerous "citizens complaints" that Brother's was selling liquor to minors.) Zabic received a $100 fine and successfully completed six months' probation.
In yet another misdemeanor DWI, Brenn Haselman, another Mayfield client, pleaded guilty; he received a fine and a suspended sentence from County Criminal Court Judge Marshall Gandy.
And then there was Kevin Wayne Merton, who, after being charged with beating his ex-wife, upped the ante. Two weeks before the case came to trial, Merton left his ex a valentine: a newspaper clipping about a husband who murdered his wife and then committed suicide. As if this weren't enough to get the point across, Merton also left messages telling her not to show up to testify. When the ex called police, Merton confessed--and then, while police were investigating, left yet another a message telling his wife "don't show up November 25th, do you understand me...you will not make it into the fucking courthouse, you got me?" Mayfield pleaded his client no contest on both the underlying felony assault and the misdemeanor retaliation charge; Merton was fined and received probation in both cases.
In three other cases, Mayfield managed to get felony cases dismissed or reduced to misdemeanors.
For his part, Mayfield insists that having the power of the purse over judges he appears before has nothing to do with his string of wins.
But then, Mayfield has something of a history of being insensitive to the possibility of conflicts. At the time he was elected to the commissioners court, Mayfield was a trustee of the Cedar Hill school board; he refused to step down from that post until an attorney general's opinion in January 1995 ruled that holding both positions at once was an impermissible conflict.
"I still don't think there actually was a conflict there," says Mayfield. "All that [opinion] speaks to is if there are two districts who want to adjust their boundaries, they can present their plan to the commissioners court for approval. But there's no discretion. It's just a ministerial act."
Unfortunately, there do not appear to be any direct attorney general rulings on whether county commissioners can practice before judges in their counties.
"There's nothing in the Constitution, or statute, or AG opinion that discusses or prohibits a county commissioner from practicing law--not even in a court in which he or she may have helped appoint that judge," says Ward Tisdale, a spokesman for Attorney General Dan Morales.
Of course, the attorney general's office only rules on questions it is presented. And although the relevant ethical canons are mostly silent on the subject, they do admonish attorneys to avoid even the appearance of impropriety, to promote public faith in the court system.
Asked about the propriety of Mayfield's practice, most judges adopt a three-monkey stance: They neither see nor acknowledge a conflict, and will hear nothing of the sort suggested. "It doesn't matter who the defense attorney is or who the DA is," says Judge Dan Wyde, who was appointed to County Criminal Court No. 3 in May 1997. "I judge solely on the case."
Mayfield currently has two misdemeanor DWIs pending before Judge Wyde, both of which are scheduled for trial December 12.
Despite the facts that the commissioners appointed him to the bench to fill the term of a recently deceased judge, and that Mayfield was one of the primary movers behind the controversial appointment, Judge Wyde sees no appearance of impropriety in hearing Mayfield's cases. "Attorneys have no ability to effect any change of the facts," he insists. "It just doesn't matter."
Other judges agree.
"I like to think that the people who get put here have enough integrity that it just doesn't affect us," says Edwin "Bubba" King, who presides over Criminal District Court No. 2. Judge King points out that unlike county court judges, district judges, who hear felony cases, have power over county commissioners. For example, King says, district judges appoint the county auditor, and could theoretically order an audit of the commissioners court.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
He also notes that the district attorney's office could object if they saw a problem. Of course, the county commissioners also have budgetary authority over the district attorney's office. Nevertheless, many of the prosecutors Mayfield beat deny the existence of any conflict.
For example, Assistant District Attorney Livia Liu, who prosecuted the child molestation case against Mayfield's client this summer, says it was clear that the judge and Mayfield had a good relationship--but chalks that up to their being neighbors (both live in Duncanville, she says) rather than political allies. And Liu doubts that the identity of the defense attorney had anything to do with the outcome of the case.
"The outcry was delayed," she says, "and the judge just didn't find enough evidence."
Yet, a few judges, who asked that their names not be revealed, nevertheless suggest that Mayfield's moonlighting should be barred on appearance-of-impropriety grounds alone. And his competitors aren't too happy, either. "It stinks," says one wag, summing up the opinion of most lawyers at the criminal courts building. "And the worst part of it is, his business will triple now that you've exposed him.