'Bully' Judge Kicks Lawyer Out For Knee Brace And Shorts

A courtroom is supposed to be the meeting point of justice and mercy. But a Dallas criminal attorney said that he and his client received neither from a judge who is highly unpopular with the local criminal bar association and called by some defense attorneys a "bully."

Criminal law attorney James Lee Bright claimed that Judge Etta Mullin told him to leave because he wore shorts, according to KDFW-TV. Bright said that his attire was effectively under doctor's orders because, a week off reconstructive knee surgery, he had to wear a bulky brace and tubing that wouldn't fit under or over regular trousers.

"I'm typically very well-dressed," Bright told AOL Jobs. "I wear tailored suits. This is not an issue for me normally. I had on a coat and tie. Other than the shorts, I looked fine." Having worked out with the district attorney's office a plea deal for a client, Bright said that he asked to approach the bench and told the judge, "'Your honor, I truly apologize for appearing before you in this manner. I would respectively ask if you would allow me this one time.' Her direct answer was, 'Not in shorts counselor.' Every other judge I practice in front of has been more than sympathetic and accommodating. Every one [except] her."

His client had to return to jail. Bright questions whether Mullin's decision was ultimately constitutional. "Under the Sixth Amendment, a defendant has the absolute right to counsel of his choice, and that was me."

Judge Mullin was unavailable to speak because of a court appearance.

Update 4/17/2014, 2:53 PM Mullin's office provided the following statement attributed to the judge: "I cannot comment on any pending matters out of this court because the attorney involved has filed a motion to recuse and the law does not allow me to take any further action on this matter."

But the issue goes well beyond sartorial taste and decorum, say some lawyers who have appeared before Mullin. "She's the kind of person that takes things personally," defense attorney Brady Wyatt told AOL Jobs. "If you challenge her on any ruling whatsoever, she holds it against you and your client forever. What it boils down to is she has the personality of a bully and when you stand up to her, that's when things get worse for you and your client."

It is highly unusual for attorneys to speak out on the record against a sitting judge for fear of antagonizing presiding officials. But Mullin is unusually unpopular among local attorneys who appear in her court. According to the Dallas Observer, a 2013 poll by the Dallas Criminal Bar Association found that 89 percent of its members ranked Mullin's overall performance in the worst category, "needs improvement." In comparison, the second worst performing judge received that rating from 26 percent of attorneys. The paper quoted lawyer Jose Noriega as saying, "I've stopped accepting appointments in her court."

Mullin has a reputation among some of focusing on generating revenue for the court and county through fines. "That's part of her campaign literature," Wyatt said. "It's, 'I get more money out of people than anybody else.' She forces people to pay their fines and court costs before they can even plead. Until an order has been entered, how are you going to know what you would pay? If you [demand] the fine up front before you've even heard from the client, how is justice served by that?"

Ironically, by refusing to allow Bright to appear, she required the client to return to county jail, costing taxpayers additional money. According to the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, counties spend an average of $62.79 a day to house inmates.

Wyatt told a story of a client convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol. The woman had to use a breath sensor interlock to drive, but she was "6 foot 1 with a broken leg and a small car," so she couldn't bend over enough to blow into the tube. Friends had to drive her around.

"We bring her into court," Wyatt continued. "She has a cast from her hip down and we brought her medical records. [Judge Mullin] said, 'I'm not going to look at her medical records.' She was the one who asked me to bring them. I said come on, Heidi [the client], we're leaving." He claimed that Mullin instructed the court to immediately forfeit the client's bond, which would mean she'd be under arrest for no apparent reason. Wyatt said that he immediately filed a motion for Mullin to recuse herself from the case, which was granted after a hearing. "I've had another recusal granted since then because of the personal animus that she has shown toward me," he said.

Mullin is currently in a reelection bid with a run-off scheduled for May. In a statement filed with the North Dallas Texas Democratic Women, she wrote, "I have worked extremely hard to run a fair court that is also efficient, innovative, and focused on bringing value and solutions to the community." Mullin received 36.4 percent of the vote in the initial February primary, with challenger Lisa Green getting 44.3 percent.

According to the Dallas Observer, Green is likely to win, "barring a surprise come-from-behind victory." In other words, Mullin could find herself told to leave the court in short order.
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