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What's Next For DA Craig Watkins After Courtroom Drama And Contempt Charge?

BJ Austin

Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins will find out next week which judge will hear his contempt of court case.  The refusal of the District Attorney to answer questions in a misconduct hearing set the courthouse abuzz Thursday. 

Lawyers, courthouse staff, political friends and foes squeezed onto benches and stood two-deep in the back of the courtroom. The crowd wanted to see if Watkins would refuse to testify and what the judge would do if that happened.

Dallas defense attorney Clint David was not there, but kept up with the drama via tweets from the courtroom. He says the case was riveting.

 “I’ve never seen anything quite like it where a sitting district attorney refuses to testify and is held in contempt of court.”

Al Hill III, an heir to the Hunt Oil fortune, claimed Watkins indicted him on mortgage fraud charges as a favor to friend and campaign contributor Lisa Blue.  Blue, at the time, was in a court battle with Hill over millions in legal fees.

At the hearing, Blue's attorney announced she would take the 5th against self incrimination. Watkins claimed his phone conversations with Blue prior to Hill’s indictment were privileged communications. 

Attorney Kimberly Priest Johnson, not associated with the case, says that was a risky thing to do.    

“A privilege is not absolute. And once a court overrules a privilege, you’ve got to testify," Priest Johnson said.  "And Mr. Watkins is essentially thumbing his nose at the court system.  I think this is pretty detrimental to him and to the office.”

Maybe not so much, says University of North Texas political scientist Matthew Eshbaugh-Soha.  He says Watkins has been re-elected once, even with a string of controversies – including shouting matches with County Commissioners, and hauling a couple of them before a grand jury. Now, the contempt charge.

“In the legal world, obviously contempt is a big deal, " Eshbaugh-Soha noted.  "But how does this play to the average voter?  I really wonder if they’re just going to see this as lawyers being lawyers.”

But it could have a political impact if Watkins goes to jail. He could get six months and a fine of $500. Eshbaugh-Soha says that could bring Watkins Democratic challengers in the primary election next year. 

The presiding judge in Dallas, John Ovard says he will assign the contempt case to a judge Monday or Tuesday.  And that judge will decide possible punishment.  

Former KERA reporter BJ Austin spent more than 25 years in broadcast journalism, anchoring and reporting in Atlanta, New York, New Orleans and Dallas. Along the way, she covered Atlanta City Hall, the Georgia Legislature and the corruption trials of Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards.