Lawyer found guilty in rare contempt case

  • Article by: DAVID CHANEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 19, 2012 - 11:39 AM

She went to Paris for brother's wedding and missed first day of her client's trial; she calls sanction an "injustice."

The bad blood between Judge William Howard and attorney M. Tayari Garrett started last year when the judge wouldn't change her client's trial date. It got worse when Garrett intentionally missed the trial's opening day to attend her brother's wedding in Paris and was slapped with a rare contempt of court charge.

Garrett's trial for contempt ended Thursday when a jury convicted her of the misdemeanor charge in less than five hours, and the judge hearing the case gave the lawyer, who defended herself, one more dose of judicial outrage.

Judge Leslie Metzen chastised Garrett for her closing arguments, in which she accused Judge Howard and a prosecutor of colluding to build the contempt case against her. "It was appalling for me to listen to," said Metzen, a retired Dakota County judge appointed to the case. "It is highly unusual for an attorney to be in this position, to say the least."

Metzen decided against jail time for Garrett, instead giving her a maximum $1,000 fine and a year of probation. Garrett is also facing potential discipline or loss of her attorney's license when the state's Lawyers Professional Responsibility Board completes its investigation.

Garrett showed no emotion as the verdict was read. After the courtroom cleared, Garrett said "an injustice has been done" and an appeal was likely.

Garrett, 37, splits her time between Minnesota and Texas, handling mostly federal cases. She worked on victim lawsuits involving the Interstate 35W bridge collapse and was an adjunct professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law and an adjunct writing instructor at William Mitchell College of Law.

The case that landed Garrett herself in court started in January 2011. She was representing Efay Martin-Mahuru, charged with helping several people in a $2.8 million mortgage fraud scheme involving homes in Minneapolis, Richfield, Brooklyn Park and Champlin. The trial was set for May 2, 2011.

For the next several months, Garrett battled Howard and prosecutor Thomas Sinas over discovery and witness issues. She twice asked for Howard's removal from the case on grounds of judicial misconduct and racial bias against her and her client, both black women.

Because she didn't feel she was prepared to go to trial, Garrett asked Howard for continuances in March and April. Five days before he denied the April motion, she bought an airline ticket to France.

In his opening statement, Assistant St. Paul City Attorney Stephen Christie said Garrett willingly disobeyed several orders to appear in court and "she made bad choices, wrong choices, criminal choices."

Garrett called only three witnesses during the four-day trial, including attorney and close friend Kevin Magnuson, the son of a federal judge. When they worked together in a prestigious local law firm early in their careers, Magnuson called her a superstar and said her honestly was impeccable.

In her closing statement, Garrett said she may have been guilty of some ethical violations, but it turned criminal when "some people got their feelings hurt" after she challenged their actions and rulings.

"Sometimes lawyers let down the system in inexcusable ways," Christie said during his closing remarks.

David Chanen • 612-673-4465

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