Longform

Hanging the Judge

Cynthia McMurrey's remark to Lupe Salinas seemed innocent enough that night last February, when McMurrey and a group of fellow lawyers, many of whom practiced in Salinas' court, gathered in her home to toast the judge on the announcement that he had been tapped for a position in the federal judiciary.

Salinas and his courthouse friends had much to celebrate. From a South Texas migrant farming family, Salinas had risen to become a respected state district court judge, one of the few Hispanics in Harris County to hold that position, and, earlier in his legal career, a dogged federal prosecutor who cracked one of Houston's most infamous cases of police malfeasance. His ascension to the bench of a U.S. district court -- a coveted lifetime sinecure that most lawyers only dream of obtaining -- would be a fitting cap to Salinas' up-from-nowhere, All-American success story.

It would also vault him clear of the fevered political climate at the Harris County Courthouse, where jealousy, spite and animosity can incubate for years or spread like a contagion overnight. In the more antiseptic atmosphere of Houston's federal courthouse, Salinas wouldn't have to run for election every four years, nor would he or his aides have to grub for contributions to fund those election campaigns.

It was, as the judge has said, his lifetime dream. His recommendation to the Clinton administration by the senior Democrat in Texas' congressional delegation, U.S. Representative Jack Brooks of Beaumont, was actually the second time he had been in line for a federal post. Brooks previously had forwarded Salinas' name for an opening on the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, but the administration instead settled on another Hispanic jurist for that job.

McMurrey, a vivacious criminal defense lawyer who once caused a stir by bringing boyfriend Frank Sinatra Jr. to Salinas' courtroom, considered herself a good friend of both the judge and his court coordinator, Lilly Warden. But with one innocuous, offhand remark directed at two friends, McMurrey unwittingly opened the door on a courthouse feud that has left Salinas indicted on two misdemeanor perjury charges and has him accusing Warden of trying to sabotage his bid to become a federal judge.

According to guests at the dinner party, McMurrey hailed what she assumed was the impending trip to the federal judiciary by "our good friend Judge Salinas" and "his court coordinator, Lilly Warden."

"I was just speechless," recalls Salinas, who in fact had no intention of having Warden accompany him. The judge says that he had some minor problems with Warden's work for him, but mostly he wanted to hire someone from within the federal system to help him learn the ropes there.

Oddly, Salinas remembers McMurrey's statement as coming in the form of a toast in front of the gathering, while McMurrey says it was thrown out in casual conversation at the door as the well-lubricated guests prepared to depart.

"There must have been ten toasts, but I didn't say it then," explains McMurrey. "As we were walking out and there were quite a few people standing around, I said, 'You are taking Lilly to the federal court with you, aren't you?' And then there was one of those pregnant pauses that we've all had before."

McMurrey could be forgiven for making the assumption. Warden had been Salinas' court

coordinator since 1989 and had assisted the judge with his campaign fundraising and record-keeping. A onetime Republican turned Democrat who was popular with coworkers around the county courthouse, the 35-year-old Havana-born Warden began her association with the judge as a campaign volunteer three years before that.

"Lilly looked uncomfortable, embarrassed," says another person who was at the McMurrey gathering. "It was apparent from Salinas' reaction she wasn't included in his future plans."

It was all very awkward, particularly since Salinas was not only her employer but also the godfather to Warden's youngest son and her professor for a recent University of Houston political science class on civil rights, in which she received an "A." To have her rejection aired in such a public manner before close friends had to be doubly humiliating.

Soon enough, it would be Salinas' turn to taste a much more public form of humiliation.

Breaking Up is Hard to Do
Lilly Warden was an invaluable right hand to Lupe Salinas.
"She's a political asset in her own right," observes lawyer David Jones, a onetime University of Houston suitemate of Salinas' whose wife, Misty Jones, succeeded Warden as Salinas' court coordinator.

"She's personable. She knows the game and knows the players. And she enjoys it. There's not many people like that. She would go places and represent Lupe and give good political feedback and keep the assholes and alligators off his back."

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