ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — It was a windy, warm spring day in Clovis, and state District Court Chief Judge Ted L. Hartley was heading back to work after lunch.
Hartley was on foot, crossing Main Street in front of the Curry County Courthouse, when he heard “a vehicle heavily accelerate” with its horn blaring. The vehicle came straight at him, he told investigators.
Hartley said he was starting to panic because he thought he was going to be hit and feared for his life. The vehicle missed him by inches, he said. The judge said he made eye contact with the driver and it was Eric D. Dixon, a prominent lawyer from Portales.
Dixon was charged Wednesday with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, a fourth-degree felony. He has pleaded not guilty.
The Portales News Tribune reported on the charge and what Hartley and Dixon told investigators about the incident, which occurred about 1 p.m. April 5.
Dixon told investigators a different version of events. He said he noticed someone who didn’t look for traffic and began jaywalking across the street. He said he gave a short honk, slowed down to 10 to 15 mph and passed the person.
Dixon said he was “in no way attempting to scare Hartley” and that committing such an act “would jeopardize his career as an attorney.
A county employee who witnessed the incident gave a similar account to that of the judge, telling investigators she thought the vehicle was “attempting to take Hartley out,” according to the Portales News Tribune.
Dixon, who has been practicing criminal and civil law in Portales for more than 20 years and is a former Roosevelt County attorney, is a member of the Disciplinary Board of the state Supreme Court. The board investigates and reprimands lawyers for misconduct — like trying to run down judges.
I featured Dixon in a series of columns in 2008 about secret justice — the practice of judges sealing cases, often involving movers and shakers, from public view.
Two alleged malpractice cases against Dixon and a lawsuit against him for contract/debt and money due were sealed. Also sealed was a divorce case brought by his then-wife in 2004. Dixon declined to talk to me about the sealed cases.
You might also recall Dixon from an op-ed article he wrote last fall in the Journal that advocated that all state magistrates be required to have law degrees. He cited the problem of magistrates running afoul of ethics rules. Lawyers know better, I guess.
Dixon could be imprisoned for a maximum 18 months and disbarred if convicted. A disbarment proceeding would begin with the same disciplinary board on which he serves.
State District Attorney Amy Orlando of Las Cruces is handling the prosecution. Matt Chandler, district attorney for Curry and Roosevelt counties, bowed out, citing a conflict. Hartley is chief judge for the 9th Judicial District in Curry and Roosevelt counties.
Orlando said the Dixon case probably will be presented to a grand jury for indictment rather than to a judge for a preliminary hearing on whether there is enough evidence to proceed to trial.
She said that for Dixon to be found guilty of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, the prosecution will have to show he tried to hit the judge or that a reasonable person in the judge’s position would have believed he was about to be struck.
As for why Dixon may have wanted to hit or scare the judge, Orlando said she won’t have to prove motive but said she understands Hartley may have issued a ruling that was unfavorable to the lawyer.
Not surprisingly, Dixon and Hartley declined an opportunity to talk to me about the incident.
Dixon is represented by lawyer Gary Mitchell of Ruidoso, widely known for his work in death penalty cases and his folksy but highly skilled ways in the courtroom.
If this case ever goes to trial, it might be worth the drive to Clovis to watch.
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Thom Cole at email@example.com or 505-992-6280 in Santa Fe. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal