The Austin Chronicle

More Wal-Mart Fighting – This Time Among Attorneys

By Lee Nichols, December 7, 2007, News

Casey Dobson – leader of the nearly half-million-dollar legal team that defended the city of Austin in the North­cross Wal-Mart trial – is steaming mad over comments made about Judge Margaret Cooper and city staff by Maura Phelan, attorney for the Allandale Neighborhood Association. In a letter delivered to Phelan at her office with Blazier, Christensen, Bigelow & Virr, Dobson wrote, "I demand a public apology for your remarks questioning their integrity" and recommended she apologize to Cooper, as well.

According to In Fact Daily, an online politics newsletter, Phelan told ANA members at a meeting last Thursday that the group should appeal Cooper's summary judgment from Nov. 1 that upheld the city's position that the proposed Wal-Mart's garden center was an "accessory use" that could be approved administratively by city staff rather than a "conditional use" that would force public hearings on Lincoln Property's site plan for redeveloping the dead mall. Phelan's reasons, as paraphrased by In Fact Daily reporter Kimberly Reeves (who also freelances for the Chronicle):

"District judges, who rely on campaign contributions, are more subject to politics and campaign contributions, Phelan said. A panel of appeals judges would be more likely to consider the case on the legal merits. Judge Cooper, however, plans to retire at the end of her current term."

Reeves also wrote: "Phelan also criticized the city's position that the [conditional-use permit] could be done administratively, saying that the city's hired staff members were not elected officials. They did not have the neighborhood's best interests at heart because they often were looking for better-paying jobs with the developers who brought plans, she said."

In his letter, Dobson quoted a section of the Rules of Professional Conduct governing Texas lawyers, reading, "A lawyer should demonstrate respect for the legal system and for those who serve it, including judges, other lawyers, and public officials." He then called her statements "scurrilous" and "disparaging, if not defamatory, of Judge Cooper."

As for the remarks about city staff: "Again, I am stunned. ... [Y]our right to challenge the staff's interpretation of the Code does not give you the right to question their integrity, particularly by alleging that the staff interprets the Code so as to curry favor with developers who will offer them 'better-paying jobs.'" Dobson challenged Phelan to produce "one shred of evidence" that reviewers of the Northcross plan had done so. "For you to say such a thing to several dozen people when there is absolutely no basis for such a statement is beyond irresponsible, it is venal," Dobson wrote. A call to Phelan was not returned as of press time.

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