There is no dispute that the prominent lawyer and the longtime judge had their differences.
But did lawyer Eric Dixon knowingly try to frighten state District Court Chief Judge Ted L. Hartley by speeding up his SUV and honking its horn when he came upon Hartley jaywalking across Main Street in front of the Curry County Courthouse in Clovis?
Yes, says a hearing committee appointed by the Disciplinary Board of the state Supreme Court, which investigates alleged misconduct by lawyers.
The committee recommended the Supreme Court suspend Dixon from practicing law for a period to be determined by the court.
But a special panel appointed by the chief justice to review the hearing committee’s work disagrees, concluding there was insufficient evidence that Dixon recognized Hartley until the lawyer had passed the judge in his Jeep.
The special panel recommended last month that the Supreme Court reject the findings of the Disciplinary Board’s hearing committee and dismiss the case against Dixon, a longtime Portales lawyer and former Roosevelt County attorney.
The conflicting recommendations are now pending before the justices, as are questions concerning whether the special counsel for the Disciplinary Board had the power to file the case against Dixon and whether appointment of the hearing committee by the Disciplinary Board chairman complied with state law.
Dixon is a member of the Disciplinary Board, and that has required the hiring of outside counsel to handle the case and the appointment of hearing committee members from outside the agency.
Dixon took a leave from the board after being charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, a fourth-degree felony, as a result of the incident involving Hartley in April 2011.
He has pleaded not guilty. A jury trial was set for last month before a district judge from Albuquerque but was postponed because of pending motions. A new trial date hasn’t been set.
Hartley and Dixon gave conflicting accounts of the incident in testimony last summer before the hearing committee.
The judge said he was returning to the courthouse from lunch when he walked across Main Street about 1 p.m. April 5.
While in the street, he said, he heard an engine rev and a horn honk, then saw a vehicle picking up speed as it approached.
“It was coming straight at me. … I barely got into the gap” between the parked cars, Hartley said, according to a transcript of his testimony. As the vehicle passed, he said, he recognized Dixon as the driver.
“I became very, very scared, because he dislikes me and I know he dislikes me,” Hartley said.
Dixon said he slowed to 10 mph from 15 mph and lightly honked his horn because he was concerned the pedestrian didn’t see his vehicle and he wanted to warn the pedestrian of vehicle traffic.
The lawyer said his muffler was in disrepair and loud.
Dixon said he didn’t know the pedestrian was Hartley until he passed the judge, who was then on the sidewalk. “I looked at him, I nodded, waved,” he said.
But the hearing committee appointed by the Disciplinary Board found that Dixon recognized Hartley as the pedestrian when the judge was in the street, honked, then accelerated his SUV with the intent to frighten him.
“Physical intimidation of a judge is a serious matter,” the committee said in its findings.
The committee said Dixon was influenced by his animosity toward the judge.
Hartley had supported construction of a new county courthouse, while Dixon had opposed it.
In blogs on the Internet, Dixon had accused Hartley of wasting tax dollars and implied he was corrupt as his father, Earl Hartley, the former state senator, attorney general and state treasurer who pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of malfeasance in office and resigned as treasurer in 1985.
But the special panel appointed by the chief justice to review the disciplinary case found there was insufficient evidence to support the hearing committee’s finding .
The special panel said the only testimony on whether Dixon recognized Hartley came from Dixon and that he denied knowing the pedestrian was the judge until he passed him in his SUV.
In recommending to the Supreme Court that the disciplinary case be dismissed, the special panel said whether Dixon recognized Hartley as the pedestrian prior to passing him was central to the case.
It’s unclear when the Supreme Court will decide on the conflicting recommendations.
It may just wait until a jury makes its decision in the criminal case.
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Thom Cole at firstname.lastname@example.org or 505-992-6280 in Santa Fe. Go to ABQjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal