Dallas attorney James Lee Bright faced a dilemma: he had to appear in court but he recovering from knee surgery with a large leg brace and an ice machine attached to his leg to stop swelling. He could not fit his pants over the hardware so he wore a shirt, tie, jacket, and shorts. That did not go over well with Judge Etta Mullin (left) who refused to hear his motion to dismiss a weapons charge for a client because he was wearing shorts. It was a rather unsympathetic and inflexible decision but it was not the first for this particular judge. However, it is the mounting criticism of Mullin that raises the question of why the Democratic party has pushed for her reelection and why the state bar has not investigated allegations of injudicious conduct.
The decision to bar Bright was clearly abusive in light of his obvious medical excuse. What is curious is that women are allowed to appear without ties or jacket and wearing skirts. Yet, a male attorney who has to appear in a leg brace and shorts is tossed out of court.
Bright is now seeking to have Mullin removed. The rigidity and lack of sympathy shown by Mullin is something of a signature for the judge. Indeed, so is the motion seeking to avoid her as a judge in this court. Lawyers complain that Mullen is often rude and arbitrary with both clients and attorneys. Many now avoid her courtroom and the horror stories have previously appeared in local stories.
According to news reports, Mullin has been given the lowest ratings by lawyers — ratings that are often quite generous to judges. In a 2012 poll by the Dallas Criminal Bar Association, 89 percent of attorneys ranked Mullin’s overall performance in the “needs improvement” category, the lowest category.
In the case of Amber Buford, the defendant agreed to plead guilty to a prostitution charge. It is a routine case that ended up in from of Mullin. Since Buford was indigent, she was given appointed counsel. However, before accepting the plea, Mullin insisted that Buford, the indigent, pay the $267 bill for court costs in one lump sum. Her lawyer explained that she was obviously indigent and did not have the money. Mullin refused to accept the plea bargain and set the case for a full jury trial that neither the prosecutors nor the defense wanted. She forced both sides to go through the preparation for an expensive trial before finally accepting the plea on the day of jury selection.
Mullin routinely demands cash for defendants on the spot — a highly uncommon practice since few come to court with wads of cash on hand. This was the case of the client of DWI attorney Lee Bright when Mullin suddenly demanded $1,000 cash for a bond. He suggested the common use of a surety bond for the amount but she refused. She allegedly threatened to send the client back to jail unless he paid the cash or Bright paid the money out of his own pocket.
In another case, she is accused of refusing to allow a defendant to explain that she could not have messing around with a an interlock device on a car (she was out of town at the time of the alleged misconduct). He says that Mullin was ticked that he had disagreed with her on an earlier case and took it out on his next case.
Attorneys complain that she makes them wait hours in her courtroom and sometimes simply walks out without explanation or notice. She is also accused of attacking lawyers or demeaning them. It is rare for lawyers to publicly criticize a judge. After all, there is a fear of a backlash from the judge or her colleagues. However, lawyers have been lining up to publicly denounce Mullin. John Gioffredi, a DWI attorney told the press that Mullin is “the most inefficient and inconsiderate judge” that he has encountered in his career. It has gotten to the point that lawyers routinely seek transfers out of her court and some actually charge clients more if they have to deal with Mullin.
On lawyer, John Corn sent Mullin a letter reflecting this dissatisfaction after he said Mullin accused attorneys standing in line of laughing at her. Corn wrote:
“No one — certainly not a single lawyer who stood in line with me on that day — was laughing at you. To the contrary, we were amusing ourselves during what felt like an interminable wait. . . .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.”
What is astonishing is that despite the disclosure of these allegations and controversies, the Democratic leaders publicly supported her. However she only received 36.4% of the vote Trey Bunch and Lisa Green. Mullin will face Green in a primary runoff election on May 27, 2014. In 2010, she barely defeated Alexander Fitzenhagen in the general election with 51.34% of the vote.
Mullen previously worked in juvenile and family services as well as a probation worker. She earned her undergraduate degree from Texas Woman’s University in Denton and her law degree from Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University in Houston.