Dallas County

Dallas County Names Potential Prosecutors in Susan Hawk Removal Case

One of the vagaries of a process filled with them — suits to remove Texas public officials — is that the county in which the official serves can be charged with appointing the prosecuting attorney in the case. Normally, the choice isn't difficult, because counties in Texas have an elected attorney that represents them — either a county or district attorney. The options in the removal suit currently being dealt with in Dallas County are more complicated. Dallas County District Attorney Susan Hawk, the person who would otherwise be deciding if and how to proceed with the removal suit, is the person facing removal. That left the Dallas County Commissioners to select a county or district attorney from one of Dallas' adjacent counties to represent the interests of Cindy Stormer, the former member of Hawk's office who filed the petition for removal. 

David Peeples, the San Antonio judge placed in charge of the case after two local judges recused themselves, ordered the county to select an attorney in order to streamline the removal process and get any trial over with as soon as possible. Had he allowed the case to move forward with Stormer's attorneys leading the prosecution, the potential would've existed for multiple additional removal suits to be filed.

Peeples did the same thing when he presided over the removal trial of Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, who'd pleaded guilty to driving while intoxicated. In that case, Travis County appointed then-Travis County Attorney David Esca­mil­la to prosecute the case. (In Travis County, district attorney and county attorney are distinct jobs.) In taking the case, Escamilla had to do two things, make a decision as to whether the suit merited moving forward and then prosecute the suit itself. Escamilla told the Austin Chronicle in 2014 that, despite the often withering criticism he faced and the fact that Peeples chose not to remove Lehmberg from her post, he thought he'd done the right thing when he allowed the suit to move forward. She'd admitted to being drunk, an offense that can be grounds for removal in and of itself under Texas law.

The prosecutor who takes the Hawk case will not have such a cut-and-dried decision. Whichever of the three people tapped by Dallas County Tuesday to take the case ends up accepting it will have to decide if Hawk's mental illness and admitted drug addiction rendered and continues to render her incapable of fulfilling the duties Dallas County voters elected her to fulfill in 2014.

In order, Dallas County's choices to prosecute the suit were Ellis County and District Attorney Patrick Wilson, Denton County District Attorney Paul Johnson and Tarrant County District Attorney Sharen Wilson. A source at the county building says that the commissioners listed multiple appointees in order to provide backup for potential recusals. Late Tuesday, Wilson said he would take the job.

“This matter has been the subject of intense media and public scrutiny. With this matter now pending in court, the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct limit what should be said by any of the involved attorneys. An uncommon duty has been imposed upon me not by choice, but by the law of the state of Texas. I intend to perform my due diligence and proceed accordingly,” he said.

Public speakers at Tuesday's commissioners' court meeting were confused about the action taken by the county, perceiving it as an endorsement of dumping the district attorney. Sherry Cusumano, president of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Dallas affiliate, said that a women she talked to was scared to bring her mentally ill son back from treatment to Dallas because of the headlines surrounding Hawk and her treatment. County Commissioner John Wiley Price, voted 5-0 before the court to approve the attorney recommendations, said the court's doing so was only in response to the request made by Peeples, and was not reflective, one way or the other, of how it might feel about the removal action.
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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