In an extremely rare censure, a Minneapolis lawyer faces the possibility of jail time and a $1,000 fine after being charged with criminal contempt for allegedly trying to deceive the judge about the reasons she missed a trial date.
Attorney M. Tayari Garrett, who says the charges are "preposterous and vindictive," could face as much as three months in jail if convicted on the misdemeanor charge. She potentially could face an investigation by the state's Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility.
The case stems from a series of events last spring, when Garrett repeatedly told Hennepin County Judge William Howard she wouldn't be available for her client's mortgage fraud trial because of a sudden illness and issues concerning the trial. When she missed the trial date and couldn't prove to the judge's satisfaction that she was sick, he found her in contempt and referred the case for possible criminal charges.
An investigation found that Garrett had bought an airplane ticket to Paris about a month before the trial, left two days after the trial date and returned five days later, according to a court document.
"I've never heard of a reputable lawyer being this disrespectful. She was one inch away from perjury," Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said. "You treat the court with respect. She failed that course."
The tension between Garrett and Howard started months before the May 2 trial date. Howard denied a variety of pretrial motions in the mortgage-fraud case, and Garrett claimed that he violated state procedure rules in several instances. Garrett then asked for Howard's removal from the case on grounds of judicial misconduct and racial bias against her and her client, both black women.
Garrett, 36, who splits her time between Minnesota and Texas, still contends "this entire fiasco centers on my opinion that Judge Howard was clearly biased in my case, and that I sought to hold him accountable."
She said the record and evidence show she was unexpectedly hospitalized overnight on the date set for trial but made sure another attorney appeared on her behalf.
She said she filed a motion, affidavits and several hundred pages of documents the Friday before trial and had every intention of appearing on the trial date. Garrett also said she provided Howard with medical records and invited court officials to contact the hospital, which they did.
"Whether or not I traveled the weekend following my hospital stay is not relevant to whether I willfully failed to appear for trial on May 2," she said Wednesday. "The entire nature of the charges is preposterous and vindictive.''
Garrett, who runs her own law firm based in Dallas, has already filed a complaint against Howard with Minnesota's Board on Judicial Standards. 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. She was an honor student at Syracuse University College of Law. William Walker, a fellow attorney who has known her for several years, said she is a forthright attorney meticulous about her work.
The original case involved Efay Martin-Mahuru, who was charged with theft by swindle. She is accused of helping Edward Boler and Susan Newell in a $2.8 million mortgage fraud scheme involving homes in Minneapolis, Richfield, Brooklyn Park and Champlin in 2005. Boler and Newell have been convicted. Martin-Mahuru pleaded guilty to one count of felony theft and will be sentenced Friday.
According to the charge against Garrett, which was filed last week, she started asking in February for a continuance on the May 2 trial date. A continuance request was denied by Howard in April, and she was ordered to appear in court for the May trial. She missed two more mandatory court appearances. After a third missed date, she told Howard by telephone she was ill.
Howard then ordered her to appear May 9 to give testimony in a hearing to show why she failed to appear. But she didn't show for that court date and another two days later. She asserted that her health prevented her from traveling from Texas to Minnesota.
During a hearing before issuing his contempt order, Howard said, "I've never seen behavior like this in 39 years in law, including 20 on the bench. It was flagrant, knowing and intentional."
The subsequent investigation found that Garrett bought an airline ticket to Paris on April 16, the complaint said. She traveled there May 4 and returned May 9.
In court, Martin-Mahuru agreed to drop Garrett and be represented by another attorney approved by Howard.
Chief Hennepin County Judge James Swenson said that it isn't unusual for a judge to hold someone in contempt of court but that he was unaware of any lawyer being criminally charged for contempt during his 16 years on the bench.
"This is very unusual,'' long-time Twin Cities attorney Fred Bruno said. "You have to push a judge way past their boiling point.''
Martin Cole, director of the Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility, said he wasn't aware of the case. If a misdemeanor contempt case was brought to his attention, he said, he would most likely open a case, but wouldn't start any investigation until the criminal process was complete. In general, he said, he didn't believe such a case would result in disbarment.
David Chanen • 612-673-4465