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Who resigns after a DUI arrest?

The Statesman asks the question and gets some answers.

Rosemary Lehmberg

In 2006, District Attorney Tim Cole had a decision to make. The then-chief prosecutor for Montague, Clay and Archer counties had been arrested for drunken driving after a day of July Fourth celebrating at a lake across the state line in Oklahoma.

It didn’t take him long to conclude he could no longer in good conscience continue being the chief law enforcement officer in the community northwest of Dallas. “I had criticized other (prosecutors) in the same situation, and it would have been pretty hypocritical of me not to do what I expected them to do,” he recalled.

So despite the urging of other prosecutors to stay, he resigned. “I felt like I needed to do it for my own integrity and the integrity of the office,” he said. Yet today, after working for a few years in private practice, he’s back working as an assistant prosecutor, in Wise County outside of Dallas.

Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, who pleaded guilty to DWI on Friday and was sentenced to 45 days in jail, has insisted she has no intention of quitting. Friends and colleagues say part of the reason is personal. A driven career prosecutor who ascended to the top job in 2008 after working three decades behind the scenes, her county work has been her life.

Politics are also a factor. While an obscure Texas statute allows prosecutors to be removed from office for drinking, it’s rarely invoked, although a local lawyer has filed such a petition under the law. State law calls for the governor to name a replacement for a vacated DA’s office. Rick Perry almost certainly would appoint a fellow Republican, dealing an insulting political blow to Travis County, which votes Democratic.

It’s still unclear whether Lehmberg can survive professionally. Other Texas public officials convicted of drunken driving haven’t spent stretches of time in jail. The Travis County position is also especially high profile because it includes the state’s public integrity unit, which prosecutes Texas public officials accused of misdeeds in office. And jail records described Lehmberg as uncooperative toward police and correctional workers after her arrest, details that could ratchet up public pressure for her to resign.

Cole’s professional trajectory also highlights the complicated calculus that must be performed when a law enforcement official sworn to uphold the law is caught breaking it. Elected officials, in particular, who are under no legal obligation to quit, must weigh their ambition and competence against a critical public perception that can erode the effectiveness of their work.

There is no clear course. An American-Statesman analysis shows that, unlike Cole, other district attorneys, as well as judges and elected officials, have chosen to remain in office after their DWIs.

I had wondered about this, so I’m glad to see the Statesman address the question. Besides Cole, there were two other DAs arrested for DUI – these were all in the last ten years or so; I suspect there would be more if the Statesman had looked farther back, but the value of each example would decline over time – and neither resigned, but both were eventually defeated for re-election. No District Court judges stepped down after being busted. This all strongly suggests to me that Lehmberg will stick to her original plan to not resign. It’s possible that the complaint under that obscure law about drunk DAs could eventually force her out, but color me skeptical in the absence of any precedents for that. I suspect the force that will ultimately determine if she stays or goes is pressure from the Travis County Democratic establishment. If they have her back, she’ll probably be fine. If they decide she’s more trouble than she’s worth, out she’ll go. Watch what is or isn’t being said in public, and that should tell you what you need to know.

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2 Comments

  1. Michael says:

    I’m also interested in the question “Who survives a primary challenge or general election after a DUI arrest?”

  2. [...] by their recommendation, that would at least ameliorate the will-thwarting issue. Lehmberg says she won’t resign, so it’s a moot point until and unless she gets forced out. We’ll see how it [...]

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