Judge Etta Mullin Has Been Thrifty with County's Money, But Attorneys Say It Comes at a Price
When a few Dallas cops arrested a woman hanging out in the 4300 block of Colonial Avenue last year, it seemed obvious they weren't catching a criminal who had a ton of money.
Officers Charles Moreland and Clayton Edwards were working undercover on March 28 when they came across Amber Buford. Moreland and Buford got into a conversation. The conversation moved fast, at least according to an arrest report: "During the conversation the suspect knowingly: agreed to sexual conduct sexual intercourse with said officer for a fee paid: directly to the suspect by the officer."
The officers arrested Buford on a prostitution charge. But that wasn't the end of her troubles. Buford's case ended up in the courtroom of County Judge Etta J. Mullin, who has built a reputation on being the thriftiest judge in Dallas County. She is up for re-election in the Democratic primary on Tuesday.
Mullin is what critics call "a bill collector instead of a judge," in the words of Lisa Green, one of the two Democrats running against Mullin.
Buford couldn't afford an attorney, so Judge Mullin ruled she was indigent. Mullin assigned her a private lawyer named Jose Noriega, as is the standard procedure.
From then on, the case should have been fairly painless. Buford agreed to plead guilty under a deal with the district attorney's office, records show.
But it quickly soured. Judge Mullin wouldn't accept the deal, according to Noriega. Why? The case file doesn't explain, other than listing a $267 bill for court costs. In an interview, Buford's attorney claims that Judge Mullin had demanded that Buford make that $267 payment in one lump sum, even though she "couldn't rub two nickels to save her life," Noriega says.
But without the money upfront, there would be no plea deal, Noriega says. Instead, records show that Mullin scheduled Buford for a jury trial the following month, even though neither side wanted to waste time on a jury trial.
On October 16, the date of jury selection, Mullin finally allowed prosecutors and Buford have their original plea deal. The trial was off.
But the experience left a bitter taste in Noriega's mouth. "I've stopped accepting appointments in her court," he says.
Judge Mullin has built a reputation on bringing much more money to the county than any other criminal judge, but attorneys describe her as someone who cares more about her numbers than the people she's supposed to be serving.
Mullin was elected to County Criminal Court 5, a non-violent misdemeanor court, in 2010. Though she faces two Democratic opponents in the primary (in addition to Green, criminal defense attorney Trey Bunch is also running) it is Mullin's campaign that's enjoying support from top local Democrats.
Mullin has yet to respond to numerous messages we left to her private and campaign email addresses and with her court coordinator. In campaign literature, she lists support from politicians such as Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, state Senator Royce West and County Commissioner John Wiley Price. "According to a recent Dallas County judicial management report, Judge Mullin operates the #1 most efficient misdemeanor court," Mullin's campaign wrote in a recent email to voters.
The email doesn't provide a link to that report, but Mullin appears to be referencing a budget report released last September by the Dallas County Commissioners Court. It shows that Mullin raised more revenue for the county in the past fiscal year than any other criminal judge. She also had the lowest operating expenses, ultimately bringing in a net revenue of $507,044. She more than doubled the amount collected by the No. 2 net-revenue-maker, Judge Tina Yoo.
How she's made those savings has pissed off many attorneys.
In a poll released last year by the Dallas Criminal Bar Association, 89 percent of attorneys ranked Mullin's overall performance in the "needs improvement" category, the lowest option available. (The next least popular criminal judge has only 26 percent of attorneys thinking the same.)
How can a judge be first in financials but dead last in popularity? For starters, it's her demand for payments upfront from clients. In the Buford case, in which the client was found indigent, trying to ask for a payment up front would be unconstitutional, says Texas Civil Rights Project director Jim Harrington.
"You can't do that. That's ridiculous," Harrington says. "Usually what's typically done is that there's a schedule set up, and then if that person can't meet that schedule, then the judge has to set another schedule."
In 2012, DWI attorney Lee Bright filed a motion asking that one of his cases be moved out of Mullin's court. Why? Mullin had set a $1,000 bond for one of his clients, Bright said, and would only accept cash. Bright countered that his client couldn't pay a full grand at that exact moment. Instead, he wanted his client to have the option pay a $1,000 surety bond, which allows payment in installments.
Bright said that Mullin denied his request, refused to lower the cash amount, "and further conveyed to Mr. Bright that the defendant could either pay the $1,000 cash bond, sit in jail until trial or that Mr. Bright could pay the bond amount personally."
Beyond financials, Mullin has also managed to annoy lawyers in more basic ways. In her first few years in office, she appeared to keep her operating costs low by not hiring a a court coordinator. That's the person who attorneys typically deal with on minor issues, like scheduling hearings. Without a court coordinator, her savings came at the expense of the private criminal defense attorneys in her court, who would then have to spend hours trying to get cases scheduled.
"I've been practicing law in Dallas for 32 years, and she's the most inefficient and inconsiderate judge that I can recall having," says John Gioffredi, a DWI attorney.
Mullin now has a court coordinator in place, but as far as clients in her court are concerned, the damage is done. Gioffredi recently created an informal poll specifically about Mullin on Survey Monkey, a web-based survey company, and emailed it out to about 100 local criminal defense attorneys. Of the people who filled it out, half reported that they charge clients extra if she's the judge in their case.
Tom Hooton, another DWI attorney, says he once sat for a full day in Mullin's court. After five hours of waiting, "she got up off the bench and left and never came back." There was no explanation. He got a court date finally when he returned the next day.
For other attorneys, their beef with Mullin is more personal. In 2012, when a few attorneys waited in line to speak with Mullin, she accused a few of them of laughing at her. Concerned, one of those attorneys, a DWI lawyer named John Corn, sent Mullin a letter trying to patch things up. "No one -- certainly not a single lawyer who stood in line with me on that day -- was laughing at you," Corn wrote in the letter. "To the contrary, we were amusing ourselves during what felt like an interminable wait."
Corn went on: "You frequently demean and belittle lawyers -- most egregiously, in front of clients and others. Tearing up pass slips and telling lawyers to go to the end of the line, for instance. You demand that lawyers approach the bench and concert with you on every single setting in a case, and this often takes an inordinate amount of time ... and, in this depression, when clients have little money, you don't allow enough time for lawyers to collect their fee before final disposition."
And attorneys who stand up to her say that they run the risk of sabotaging their cases. Criminal defense attorney Brady Wyatt was in Mullin's court in April 2012, representing a woman named Heidi Amos facing DWI charges. The attorney and judge got in a spat about scheduling, Wyatt wrote in a motion, and the spat seemed to carry over to Amos.
Mullin had accused the client of interlock violations, or simply put, finding ways to avoid the breath-testing device that the county placed in her car so it would not start if she'd been drinking.
But Amos had actually been out of town and wasn't using her car while she was gone, Wyatt countered in court documents. Wyatt asked the judge to give Amos a chance to explain. But the judge wouldn't have it, he says. "Judge Mullin stated that she did not care what my client had to say and that she was not sure whom to believe, so she was going to put a SCRAM device on my client," Wyatt wrote in a motion asking to have the case moved to a different court.
"She doesn't like me and she doesn't like the fact that I challenged her," Wyatt said.
For many private defense attorneys, it's pretty easy to speak out against Mullin. They work for themselves and aren't employed by the government, so they can afford to stop taking cases in her court. But the Public Defender's Office, which is employed by the county, has also managed to stay out of Mullin's court, records show. The agency didn't respond to interview requests, but email records provide a clue into what went wrong.
"I am concerned about the quality of the representation of our clients based on the excessive case loads and the working conditions of the attorneys in your court due to the absence of a coordinator," Chief Public Defender Lynn Pride Richardson wrote to Mullin in 2011.
Following emails show that the case load only increased later that month, four days later. On May 31, Richardson complained that the the two public defenders in Mullin's court were handling about 150 cases, three times the typical load.
In response, Mullin said that from then on, she would just stop assigning any cases at all to the public defender's office. "Unfortunately, you leave me with no other choice," Mullin responded to Richardson.
This means that anyone who is broke and ends up in Mullin's court will be now assigned a court-appointed attorney, who is private, rather than anyone from the public defender's office. For clients, this move probably won't make a difference in the quality of their representation, attorneys say.