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

"Looking back at it," Mansfield says, "even though from all appearances it was okay, as a judge I suppose I still shouldn't have done it. I can see how it kind of looks tacky."

Is it also tacky that the tickets he sold at more than triple the $38 face value were given to him compliments of UT?

"I don't think that has anything to do with it," he says.

Even something as simple as Mansfield announcing whether to run for re-election has been full of quirks.

On July 19 he told the Texas Lawyer he was running for re-election in part to answer threats in an anonymous letter sent to his Houston home. The letter, dated June 30, warned Mansfield to "go away quietly and start a solo practice as an ambulance chaser" rather than further embarrass the Republican Party and the legal community, according to a copy Mansfield provided the Houston Press.

The letter also posed the question: "Do you really believe your marrying a Black woman will provide a positive thing?" Mansfield, who is white, married a Houston pharmacist, who is African-American, on November 6. They had planned to be married in May 2000 but decided in late October not to wait, Mansfield says.

One day after telling the Texas Lawyer he was running, Mansfield announced he wasn't because he didn't want his past failings rehashed in a negative campaign. He cited the same letter as a factor in the decision.

Two months later Mansfield changed his mind yet again. "My [wife] feels I should go for it," he says. "Besides, what more mud could they really drag me through?"

He also worries that giving up his seat could shift the prosecutor-friendly majority that, in his own weird way, he helped forge.

"Well," Presiding Judge Michael McCormick says about the whining of criminal-defense attorneys, "sounds to me like it's a matter of whose ox is getting gored."

It must be quite satisfying these days for McCormick to be the one applying the wounds. The longest-serving member of the current court by a dozen years, McCormick plans to end a 20-year tenure by retiring next year. Although he has presided over the court since 1989, it had long been McCormick's ox getting gored. He played dissenter for years. Although McCormick would never characterize it this way, he is now exacting his revenge.

Instead of heretic, the former Democrat who switched parties in October 1997 now leads the majority of conformist judges that routinely sides with the state. Like his most loyal peons, Mansfield and Keller, he says the current majority has simply shifted a left-leaning court to the moderate center.

"Before, a lot of convictions were being reversed on fundamental grounds without even looking at the facts of the case," McCormick says. "What this court is saying is, look, we are not going to engage in a hypertechnical game of pleadings like they did back in the 13th and 14th centuries in England, where if a word was out of place then you lost. We are going to look at what is being attacked in light of what transpired in the trial and what harm it caused the accused."

McCormick has gone from outcast to bell cow because of the court's unprecedented turnover. He is the only holdover from the 1992 court. Former judge Charles Campbell, who lost to Mansfield in 1994, says the problem with the Court of Criminal Appeals -- and the court system in general -- isn't philosophy, but inexperience.

"Philosophy has never brought down a court," says Campbell, who had a reputation as a scholarly judge. "But one of the things that does erode confidence in a system is a lack of institutional memory and a lack of experience."

What Campbell is saying in a diplomatic way is that the court isn't as scholarly as it used to be. Meyers, the judge who doesn't mind straying from the majority, also chooses words carefully to give his assessment of the current court.

"I feel like some of the cases that we've done have not been intellectually honest," says Meyers. In 1992 he became the first Republican ever elected to the court. He disagrees with McCormick, Keller and Mansfield that the previous court was agenda-driven in favor of the defense.

To seize control of the court, McCormick has had to ally with Mansfield, whom he calls "a very intelligent person," and Keller, who like Mansfield came to the court without judicial experience.

The three often are joined in the majority by Judge Sue Holland, whom criminal-defense lawyers characterize as wanting between the ears, and first-year Judge Michael Keasler, a former Dallas County district court judge who is wet behind the ears. They also count on Judge Paul Womack, widely hailed as the court intellectual but one who cannot move beyond his bias as a former prosecutor.

It is Keller, however, who is McCormick's protégée. She worked eight years for the Dallas County District Attorney before being elected in 1994. McCormick was executive director of the Texas District and County Attorneys Association before he was elected to the court in 1980.

As Keller worked in the appellate section of the District Attorney's office, she grew unhappy with what she viewed as a defense-oriented agenda of the court. She says she saw the court adopt new rules and unfairly apply them retroactively to favor the defense. It struck her that the court's rulings had no sound basis in constitutional, statutory or case law but rather reflected the individual biases of the judges. For those reasons, she opted to run in 1994.

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