Strong Convictions

Hard-line leaders such as loopy Stephen Mansfield have taken their agenda to the Court of Criminal Appeals, where legal precedents--not prosecutions--get overturned

When criminal-defense attorneys talk about the breakdown of the Court of Criminal Appeals, they begin with the name Stephen Mansfield. The judge, elected in 1994 and seeking re-election next year, is his own worst enemy and thus an easy target. Not nearly as dumb as people like to make him out to be, Mansfield nevertheless is stranger than he likes to believe he is.

"I think generally I have led a very quiet, sedate life," he says from his office on the second floor of a State Capitol complex building. "I've always gone to work on time, always prided myself on doing an honest day's work for an honest day's pay."

With salt-and-pepper hair that looks like it is cut in an Austin Powers shag (really, it's just a bad haircut), Mansfield, 47, says he's writing a Tom Clancy-esque novel that combines the intrigue of particle-beam research and the suspense of massive hurricanes.

On the first day of this autumn's cold snap, Mansfield went to work wearing an oversize beige knit sweater with colorful geometric designs and no shirt beneath it. The wide-neck collar was stretched and slung to where it exposed one of his shoulders. He finished his look with faded jeans and running shoes.

His office decor gives little hint as to who he is, except for a barbell not far from the door. Mansfield, a self-proclaimed jock, enjoys lifting weights in his office while taking a break from the rigors of being a judge.

He says his favorite addictive drink is Pepsi and that he doesn't smoke. He's a competitive distance runner and rugby player. And he's a good cook.

Instead of hobnobbing at haughty private clubs during lunch, Mansfield can be found cooking a fresh fillet of salmon in the kitchen of the court offices, which earns him a few raised eyebrows from startled underlings. He owns a home in southwest Houston and rents half of a duplex in northwest Austin. This being his first job with a decent salary ($134,000 annually in pay and benefits), Mansfield says, he isn't used to being extravagant. His work output is impressive, among the tops in the volume of court opinions produced. He claims to use his law clerks less than most judges do in authoring opinions. As if he has to prove himself (and he does, constantly), he offers evidence that his opinions are his own work by pointing to a ream of notebook paper stacked high on a bookshelf. Mansfield writes his first drafts of opinions in longhand on the papers. "I'm a terrible typist," he says.

So why is Mansfield still considered a buffoon? It's a combination of the deceitful way he got here, his knack of getting himself in trouble and his reputation as an odd duck. He characterizes his past foibles as "a few minor screwups." The State Bar of Texas, the Commission for Judicial Conduct and the University of Texas police, among others, conclude the screwup is Mansfield himself.

Mansfield was an in-house lawyer for a Houston insurance company and had an antigovernment political bent when he decided in 1993 to run for the Court of Criminal Appeals. He says he was inspired to enter the race because of the court's decision to overturn the 1990 conviction of Houstonian Lionell Rodriguez for the murder of Tracy Gee during a carjacking. In a controversial 5-4 ruling, the court faithfully tracked rules to ensure juries are chosen at random. But to Mansfield, and to many other Texans, it appeared as if the Rodriguez conviction was reversed on a technicality and that the court was leaning too far in favor of defendants' rights.

Mansfield plunked down the $3,000 filing fee to run in the Republican primary. He had no party ties, no base of support and no name recognition. What he did have was a rusted-out Ford Festiva, which he drove around the state to visit courthouses, party activists and victims' rights advocates. He won in a primary in which Republican voters chose between two candidates they knew nothing about.

He continued his driving campaign, staying in cheap motels with his Pomeranian, Royal. They would appear together at speaking events. Mansfield said he drew some criticism for an "undignified" campaign. "And I just said, 'That's the way it is.' If someone doesn't vote for me because I campaign with a little dog, that's their problem."

Mansfield compares his effort to that of a 1996 Democratic Senate hopeful who gained notice for touring the state in his Nissan pickup truck. "I was Victor Morales before Victor Morales," says Mansfield, failing to recognize that voters actually took notice of Morales. In all, Mansfield spent about $7,000 on his campaign, some of which he spent on dog food for Royal during the race.

His Democratic opponent was incumbent Charles Campbell, who won every endorsement from legal groups and newspapers.

Mansfield's anonymity ended when it was reported before the election that he had lied about his experience. He claimed a legal background primarily in criminal defense when in fact it was almost entirely in insurance and pension law. He claimed to have written extensively on criminal and civil justice issues when in fact he had written guest editorials for a Houston suburban newspaper and articles for an insurance industry trade publication. He also listed his birthplace as Houston even though it was Brookline, Massachusetts.

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