SAN ANTONIO – The Texas Fourth Court of Appeals on Wednesday effectively barred former Bexar County District Attorney Nico LaHood's law firm from representing a man who was indicted during LaHood's time in office.
Martinez wrote on Wednesday that state law "unequivocally" prevents anyone from LaHood Norton Law Group from representing Michael Stovall, who was indicted in August 2017 on a felony charge of assault of a family member - strangulation/choking.
Martinez quoted a 1979 federal case in her ruling, which read, in part: "For a former prosecutor to be associated with the lawyer who represents a person he earlier helped prosecute, even if only at an embryonic stage, would likely provoke suspicion and distrust of the judicial process."
Jason Goss, an attorney from LaHood's firm, began representing Stovall in his family violence case in January, days after LaHood left office. The Bexar County District Attorney's Office, now under the direction of Joe Gonzales, asked in June that Goss be disqualified as Stovall's attorney since LaHood was aware of their entire case against Stovall.
Judge Velia Meza in June denied Gonzales' office's request, stating that her court didn't "have a valid reason under the law to interfere in the defendant's constitutional right to the counsel of his choice."
Martinez, however, pointed to a Texas Court of Criminal Appeals case from 2008, which stated that: "For a prosecuting attorney to ‘switch sides’ [from defense counsel to prosecuting attorney] in the same criminal case is an actual conflict of interest and constitutes a due-process violation, even without a specific showing of prejudice.”
She wrote that the small size of LaHood's law firm disqualified the law firm as a whole. The judge cited another federal case for this specific finding: “[G]iven the presumed interplay among lawyers who practice together, the rule applies not only to individual attorneys but also requires disqualification of the entire firm as well as all employees thereof.”
The 4th Court of Appeals directed Meza's court to grant the District Attorney's office's request to bar LaHood's from the case within 15 days.
Michael Stovall is the son of the former Bexar County Republican Party Chair Robert Stovall. His criminal case was on hold pending the ruling on his counsel.
Gonzales said the ruling "affirms our belief that the integrity of the justice system is paramount and must be protected."
"This decision has state-wide implications, as the issue of prosecutor disqualifications has been left unclear for several years," he said. "It is our hope this ruling will serve as a guiding light to the other courts who have similar motions to disqualify presently set in their courts.”