Legal Battles

Anything Is Possible With Susan Hawk's Removal Trial

The trial that could remove Dallas County District Attorney Susan Hawk from office is developing, but it isn't really coming into focus. It has a judge, David Peeples, who was assigned the case after two local judges removed themselves. It has filings on both sides that indicate where the case's arguments are heading. The plaintiff  — Hawk's former employee Cindy Stormer — will claim that information about Hawk's mental illness and addiction issues was not made available to voters in the run-up to Hawk's election, and she is unfit to do her job. Hawk will argue that her illness and her addiction were pre-existing, that voters elected her as she was and in seeking treatment for severe depression, she has shored herself up to fulfill her duties.

Still, because removal suits are so rare, it's impossible to know what will happen. Peeples has overseen several, including one of the most recent and highest profile, the 2013 trial to remove Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg from her post after she was convicted of DWI. Lehmberg's case differed from Hawk's for a couple of reasons, the biggest of which was that she admitted to doing something that put her at the mercy of the removal statute. Her attorneys, led by Dan Richards, didn't oppose the Travis County plaintiff's contention that the district attorney had been intoxicated — which is a potential cause for removal in and of itself. Instead, the defense argued that she was never incompetent to perform her duties, and that she remained competent even after her conviction. Peeples agreed, and Lehmberg kept her job.

Stormer will have to prove that Hawk's illness or addiction rendered her incompetent and continues to make her incapable of performing her duties as district attorney. The fact that Stormer's filings contain repeated assertions — and supporting affidavits — of erratic and paranoid workplace behavior by Hawk makes her case different from Lehmberg's, whose job performance was not questioned.

"There was no evidence put on at trial and there was none produced in discovery that indicated that there were any competency issues for DA Lehmberg,"  Richards says. "The record was clear on that. There was a ton of evidence that she was above and beyond on competence."

Hawk fired her top assistant, Bill Wirskye, after, Stormer alleges, Hawk accused him of breaking into her house to steal a compromising photo of her. According to Stormer, the district attorney believed employees had placed tracking software on her phone and was delusional to the point of being unable to understand her basic job functions. Hawk, Stormer says, kept a $22,500 check made out to the office for more than two months because she believed it was one of her pay stubs.

After going AWOL in July, Hawk eventually went to Houston for treatment before returning to work on October 1. Richards says Peeples should evaluate whether or not Hawk should stick around based on how she is doing now.

"Presuming that her performance has been good following her treatment, if that's the case and she's following her doctor's orders, that's how the judge ought to look at it," he says. "If she is qualified to perform her job in her current condition and she was elected, what the plaintiffs are going to be asking is for the court to basically overturn the will of the voters. I have a feeling that, if you're a judge, you want to tread very lightly there. If [you] think someone is incompetent and hasn't done anything about [it], that's a different thing, but that's not the way the stories [about Hawk] read."

But there's another threat for Hawk. If her case goes to trial, determining her medical status would lean heavily on records disclosed in discovery. Were they to be leaked to the media, as they were in the Lehmberg case, those records could be explosive, offering more details about Hawk's time in Houston in addition to her 2014 stint in an Arizona rehab facility for painkiller addiction.

If Hawk is removed, Richards worries, it could send the message that seeking treatment is the wrong choice. Even so, Richards says, because so few removal suits are ever tried, it's difficult to guess what will happen.

"Nobody knows anything about this stuff," he says. "I'm not kidding, there's not a lot of data on it, you just kinda go out there and try it."
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Stephen Young has written about Dallas news for the Observer since 2014. He's a Dallas native and a graduate of the University of North Texas.
Contact: Stephen Young