City Hall

The City Council's Ousted Muni Judge Brown. She's Not About to Leave Bench Without a Fight.

In the end, the Dallas City Council voted this morning to remove Municipal Court Judge Phyllis Lister Brown from the position she's held for 17 years. But she's not about to go quietly. Far from it.

Brown landed in a legal tangle with the city when she filed her candidacy in December to run for district judge without resigning from her position as municipal judge -- a measure required by city charter, according to City Attorney Tom Perkins, with whom a majority of the council agreed.

"Municipal courts are created by the Dallas city council. They're created pursuant to state law ... they may be removed by Dallas city council ... the salaries are paid by the City of Dallas," Perkins said, defending the position that the city is, in fact, the primary oversight body for municipal judges. Perkins recommended Brown's removal.

Brown's Attorney, Ray Guy of Weil, Gotshal & Manges, called Perkins's interpretation of the charter "flawed" and presented his version, which would give Brown the option of maintaining her position as municipal judge until -- and if -- she is elected district judge. Guy said Brown's position falls mainly under state control, and to argue otherwise would have murky implications, such as people being prosecuted and sentenced by the same body -- a city attorney and a city judge.

"The fact that she's appointed by the city council does not make her an officer of the city," Guy said. "A municipal judgeship is in the city but is not of the city." He added that it seems illogical for a well-regarded judge to have to step down in order to advance her career.

"I love my profession -- a judge for the state of Texas -- and I love the city of Dallas," Brown told the council. "That is why it saddens me today to stand before you at a removal hearing ... I respectfully disagree with the city attorney's interpretation."

But today's decision extends beyond her position, Brown said. "More importantly, it is in fact about the fundamental principles of our legal system, which depends on a judiciary that is independent and impartial," she said.

Council member Vonciel Jones Hill said that having served 17 years as a municipal judge herself, she and others in her position always knew they would have to step away from their post in order to pursue an elected position. "Mr. Guy makes very able arguments, however his arguments are incorrect," she said. "Above all, judges should respect the laws under which they are appointed and under which they serve."

Said Hill: "It is with a heavy heart but a clear mind that I move this council to adopt the ordinance proposed by the city attorney, and I move further that the result of the council's vote be published immediately."

"That gives me heartburn," said Dwaine Caraway, who, along with Carolyn Davis, voted against Brown's removal. They've been here before with muni judge Elizabeth Frizell, and he imagines this won't be the last time the issue surfaces.

After the hearing, Brown's lawyers said they plan to file a request today for a temporary injunction "to restrain the enforcement of the ordinance" and halt Brown's removal. In December, in anticipation of today's council decision, Brown and her legal team filed a separate case against the city, arguing against her removal. [UPDATE: On Wednesday afternoon, District Judge Marty Lowy granted Judge Brown's request for a Temporary Restraining Order, temporarily allowing her to maintain her position. There is a hearing scheduled for Monday regarding the case Brown filed against the city.]

"We believe that the law is on our side," Brown said after the hearing. She told Unfair Park she will continue running for district judge, but that she did not share council member Hill's understanding that to do so would mean she has to leave her post as municipal judge. "Her analysis [of the law] is entirely different than mine," Brown said.

"Overall, I believe we will still be successful in the run for the 162nd District Court," Brown said. And as it stands right now, her future employment could depend on it.

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Leslie Minora