L to R: Otto Mullinax, L.N.D. Wells, Jr., Oscar Mauzy
The Texas legal community saw the passing of an era this year with the deaths of Otto Mullinax, Nat Wells and Oscar Mauzy.
The three men were early partners in the Dallas-based firm of Mullinax & Wells, which earned its reputation in labor and civil rights litigation and as a hotbed for liberal Democratic activism.
Although it was never large, the firm also spawned a number of lawyers who went on to make their marks on Texas.
“It was a fascinating bunch of people,” says former Gov. Ann Richards, whose ex-husband, Dave, became a partner in the firm. “Everyone in the firm was politically involved.”
Wells, who had served as attorney for the National Labor Relations Board, and Mullinax founded the firm in 1947 at a time when organized labor had few friends anywhere in the South. Charlie Morris, who later became a law professor at Southern Methodist University School of Law, and Mauzy, whose political career spanned three decades, had joined the firm by the early 1950s.
“It [the firm] enjoyed the reputation as the only light shining down for labor union members in this part of the country,” says Ed Cloutman of Dallas, a long-time partner in the firm who has become one of the state’s leading civil rights lawyers.
“They were just always there, whether it was a picket line, negotiations, a contract, whatever,” says 81-year-old Austin resident Ruth Ellinger, who was an organizer for the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union in Dallas.
Union organizers frequently were the targets of police and judges. Ellinger recalls the day when Dallas police arrested her first husband, Don, also an organizer for the garment workers union, for “sensational picketing.” She says police were called in because organizers had placed “join the union” placards on long poles that could be seen by workers from the windows of a garment factory on the fifth floor of the building where a demonstration was in progress.
“The cops tried to put all those long sticks in their patrol cars,” Ellinger says. The police were about as successful at carting off the long poles as they were at keeping the union representatives in jail.
Ellinger says a lawyer from Mullinax & Wells soon got the charges against the union’s people thrown out.
Victories for Teamsters
Dave Richards, who would later participate in the suit that forced the state to equalize funding for all school districts in Texas, joined the firm in 1957. At that time, Mullinax & Wells was engaged in a running legal battle with then District Judge Jack Thornton of Dallas, whose “favorite occupation was enjoining picketing by unions,” Richards alleges.
Richards says the firm took its fight with Thornton to the Texas Supreme Court twice in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Both times, the high court ordered the union leaders released from jail and the injunctions dissolved, he says.
The firm represented the Teamsters Union during the stormy 1960s when U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy was playing a legal game of cat and mouse with the union’s leader, Jimmy Hoffa. “It was so chaotic,” Richards says. “His [Kennedy’s] principle interest was getting Jimmy Hoffa. We spent a lot of time before grand juries.”
One of the firm’s biggest victories for the Teamsters came in 1977, when Wells and Bill Baab, another partner, argued two cases — Rodriguez v. East Texas Motor Freight and United States v. TIME D.C. — before the U.S. Supreme Court. Cloutman says the federal government had accused the trucking companies of discriminating against blacks and Hispanics by refusing to allow them to do long hauls. The government also argued that the Teamsters’ seniority system
perpetuated the discrimination, he says.
“Hundreds of other cases across the country were riding on the results of the case,” Cloutman says. In the end, he says, the union did not have to change its seniority system.
Willie Chapman, communications director for the Texas Trial Lawyers Association and a former labor activist in Dallas, says Mullinax represented plaintiffs in numerous personal-injury cases during the early days of the firm. “He was doing that to pay the bills while Nat [Wells] was building the labor law firm,” Chapman says.
The firm didn’t shy away from tough cases, even the ones that didn’t bring in much money.
“It was simply recognized that we were going to be handling difficult cases, and we were not going to be paid anything like the other side was going to be paid,” says Baab, a long-time civil rights lawyer who now is a partner in Baab & Denison in Dallas.
Baab says lawyers for the opposing side often outnumbered the Mullinax & Wells lawyers by three or four to one. “We won a lot; we lost a lot, too,” he says.
But some of the firm’s victories came in major cases. In 1972, Baab won a landmark ruling from the Court of Criminal Appeals in Irvin Gerald Brown, et al. v. State of Texas, a case that established what constitutes an illegal search in Texas.
Brown involved four black students from the University of California at Santa Barbara who were arrested in Dallas in 1970 after a police officer stopped their car because they fit the description of suspects in an armed robbery. The arresting officer claimed he stopped the car because the two students riding in the back had moved their shoulders in a way that made him think they were trying to conceal weapons, the court’s opinion said.
Baab says the police found guns in the car and a Black Panther magazine, stirring speculation that the students were members of the militant organization. But it was the marijuana that police found while searching the car that caused the biggest problems.
Although a lineup cleared the students on the robbery charge, they were tried for possession of marijuana. All four were convicted, and two drew stiff prison sentences, Baab says. The criminal appeals court reversed the convictions, finding that the officers’ search of the car was illegal. The court ruled that for a warrantless arrest or search to be justified, police must show that there was probable cause for the action and that procuring a warrant would be impractical.
Baab says the case illustrates the “kind of thing” the firm was about. “People who needed help we tried to help, regardless of whether they could pay,” he says.
Brown wasn’t the only case in which the firm challenged actions by law enforcement agencies.
Near the end of his career, Mullinax won a $2.1 million verdict on behalf of a dentist who was allegedly beaten by University Park police. Cloutman says the verdict came in Paschall v. Acree, et al., which was tried in 1983 in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas in Dallas.
According to Cloutman, the dentist was arrested at his home in the exclusive University Park area of Dallas after a police officer mistakenly thought he had witnessed an altercation between guests attending a party at the residence. The dentist was taken to the police station, where he was allegedly beaten and dragged down the hall by his hair, Cloutman says. The case later was settled for an undisclosed amount, he says.
Lawyers from the firm also had a brush with history following the 1963 assassination of President Kennedy in Dallas, recalls Richards, currently of counsel at Wiseman Durst & Owen in Austin.
He says the American Civil Liberties Union asked Mullinax to see if the accused assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, needed legal representation. But “Oswald sent back word that he didn’t need any ACLU lawyer,” Richards says.
Another lawyer with the firm, Sam Houston Clinton, found a more willing client, however. Clinton was one of several lawyers who represented Jack Ruby, the Dallas nightclub owner convicted of gunning down Oswald in the basement of the Dallas police headquarters. Richards says Clinton handled Ruby’s appeal and was largely responsible for getting the conviction reversed in October 1966. However, Ruby died of lung cancer on Jan. 3, 1967, before he could be retried.
It was a firm made up of strong personalities who had views on just about everything, Richards says. They would debate whether to buy a Xerox machine or hire another secretary, he says.
“These were dedicated, enormously energetic people,” Richards says, noting that the lawyers were always ready to take on a cause. “We were active in just about everything that came down the street.”
Mauzy’s activism led him into politics and his 1967 election to the Texas Senate. A senator for 20 years, Mauzy was the sponsor of the Equal Rights Amendment to the Texas Constitution. Passed by the Legislature in 1971 and ratified by voters in 1972, the state’s ERA denies protection to those who discriminate against anyone based on race, color, creed, national origin, religion or gender.
In 1986, Mauzy won election as a justice to the Texas Supreme Court and in 1989 wrote the opinion in Edgewood ISD v. Kirby. The court found that the state’s method of funding public schools violated the Texas Constitution and ordered that the funding be equalized.
Richards, one of his former law partners, was one of the lawyers who argued on behalf of the state’s poor school districts in Edgewood.
Cloutman also has played a key role in a major education suit — Tasby v. Estes — that led to the desegregation of the Dallas school district in the early 1970s, and it’s not over yet. “The lawsuit turned 30 last month,” he says.
Two other Mullinax & Wells alumni have served on the state’s highest courts. Ted Z. Robertson, now of counsel at the Law Offices of Frank L. Branson in Dallas, was on the Supreme Court, and Clinton served on the Court of Criminal Appeals.
Lawyers who were associated with the firm also have been recognized for achievements in the legal field. Texas Lawyer named Mauzy and Fred Baron, now a partner in Baron & Budd in Dallas, as “legal legends” of the last century.
Baron, president of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, joined Mullinax & Wells as an associate in 1971 shortly after graduating from the University of Texas School of Law. He got his start in asbestos litigation at the firm before leaving to start his own practice in 1975.
Mullinax & Wells dissolved in 1990. Over the past year, some of the lawyers who once worked there gathered for the funerals of three men who were instrumental in making it the kind of firm it was.
Mullinax died on March 14 at the age of 87. Mauzy, at 73, the youngest of the trio, died on Oct. 10 from complications related to cancer. Wells, 86, died on Oct. 26.