The Austin Chronicle

Appeals Court Rules Against WilCo Constable: The fight continues

By Patricia J. Ruland, December 21, 2007, News

On Nov. 28, the 3rd Court of Appeals in Austin ruled against Precinct 1 Constable Gary Griffin, upholding District Judge James Clawson's 2006 decision to grant Williamson Co.'s motion for summary judgment in the constable's lawsuit against the county. In 2005 Griffin sued the Commis­sion­ers Court on constitutional grounds, when it cut his budget to one-fourth its size two months after adoption of the annual budget. The county abruptly decided to move the money to the county sheriff's office, in a dispute over Griffin's handling of mental-health calls. According to the 3rd Court's ruling, "The budget transfer was authorized ... and did not improperly intrude into the Constable's sphere of authority."

But Griffin's attorney, former Travis Co. Judge Bill Aleshire, filed a motion for a rehearing on Dec. 11 and insists, "This case is not over." Aleshire's motion argues the court erred because the lawsuit involves considerable dispute over material fact and therefore does not meet the legal standard for summary judgment. "Commissioners Court's and Constable Griffin's evidence were in conflict," said Aleshire last week. "We produced evidence that the county budgets each personnel slot – but the [appeal court's] opinion assumed that salaries were budgeted lump-sum. That is important because, if the commissioners had to create new salary slots in the sheriff's budget, then they exceeded their authority." The opinion also states that Griffin's deputies did not perform core constable duties – although the county never made that argument – and therefore, the court ruled, the deputies could be transferred.

Asked about the ruling, former county Judge John Doerfler confirmed that Griffin's deputies in fact performed both core and noncore duties. Indeed, as Aleshire pointed out, the Commissioners Court had made its initial decision to cut Griffin's budget because he had briefly ordered his deputies to focus only on "core duties" (serving criminal warrants and civil papers) while de-emphasizing mental-health calls, before quickly rescinding that order.

In a press release, county officials praised the ruling. The county has been "vindicated," Precinct 1 Commissioner Lisa Birkman said, for doing what was right and ensuring residents have the services they need. Birkman added that the media had falsely painted the case as a "conflict of personalities" between Griffin and herself.

Certainly the dispute has grown bitter and increasingly personal. Former Williamson Co. District Attorney Ed Walsh, now a defense attorney, says he has had to represent Griffin in a number of criminal investigations pursued by the county against Griffin over the years, although none have been sustained. Recently, the state attorney general's office found no merit to District Attorney John Bradley's allegation that Griffin and Aleshire had unlawfully introduced 911 transcripts into the court record. More mysteriously, the county's criminal database cryptically records that Griffin was "arrested" by the sheriff's office and "convicted" of class A misdemeanor official oppression (the record is undated) but contains no arrest or court record of any kind – apparently because there is none. (A notation on a separate page states that the case had been "Disposed: Without Prosecution" on Feb. 6, 2002.)

Griffin says he has never been arrested, and Walsh said simply, "There's no explanation for it." Asked if the county has something personal against him, Griffin replied: "A blind man could see it's personal. If it's not, what is it?"

Maybe it's politics as usual in Williamson Co., including the connections underlying the 3rd Court's opinion. First, there's the obligatory county official family tie – 3rd Court Justice David Puryear's son Geoffrey works as an attorney under County Attorney Jana Duty. Duty's assistant, Vickie Vickers, coordinated a Dec. 13 Georgetown fundraiser for 3rd Court Chief Justice Ken Law, held only a couple of weeks after the opinion was issued (a fundraiser announcement dated Nov. 28 – the same day as the court's ruling – listed Duty and Sheriff James Wilson as committee members). Law also reportedly sandwiched in appearances at the Republican Women's Club and the local GOP's Christmas shindig right after the opinion's release. The timing alone suggests that Law, to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest, might have considered recusing himself from the court's decision, and perhaps Puryear as well.

Aleshire says that along with his motion for a rehearing, he will file a simultaneous petition for review with the Texas Supreme Court. The former Travis Co. judge believes large issues are at stake. "If this opinion stands, it will undermine the independence of the county officials who are elected to be loyal to the voters, not to the Boss Hoggs on the Commis­sion­ers Court. Worse yet, because the summary judgment standard was ignored, the opinion, if followed in other cases, would deny parties their right to a full trial when the evidence is in dispute."

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