SANTA FE -- Eric Dixon was no ordinary lawyer trying cases in the small cities of eastern New Mexico.
In the courtroom, he made his reputation fighting for underdogs. Outside it, he wrote a blog that delivered sharp jabs. Dixon challenged those in power, often in a shrill voice.
"He is not the kind of lawyer who is going to be named grand marshal of the town parade," said Gary Mitchell, Dixon's own attorney.
Yes, Dixon is a lawyer who needs a lawyer. He stands accused of trying to run down a judge in his SUV. This same judge was the target of Dixon's acerbic writings.
Now Dixon's freedom and career are at stake in a case that raises questions about whether his right to free speech was used against him.
Ted Hartley was the state district court judge who complained about Dixon to the disciplinary committee of the state Supreme Court. Dixon had criticized Hartley for pushing a bond issue to renovate the Curry County Courthouse. Dixon also wrote in scathing style about Hartley's late father, Earl, who resigned as state treasurer in 1985 after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor in a theft case.
"Nothing personal against Earl Hartley or son Teddy, who represented him in the embezzlement trial. (I'm) just showing that power tends to corrupt absolutely, or that absolute power corrupts," Dixon wrote.
In another internet posting, Dixon wrote: "Earl Hartley was a crook and a thief of the highest degree, and basically got away with it."
Dixon's commentary, though not much different from what you might hear in a bar or coffee shop, became unusually significant. A special prosecutor says it proved motive -- namely that Dixon had so much animosity for the judge that he tried to run him over.
Now retired from the bench, Ted Hartley was jaywalking across lonely Main Street in Clovis on an April day in 2011. By Hartley's account, Dixon revved his engine, leaned on his horn and drove toward the 73-year-old jurist, never braking or changing lanes.
Mitchell says the judge turned an innocuous moment into a case that will go before the New Mexico Supreme Court next month. The justices will decide whether to clear Dixon, or suspend or disbar him. Either way, Dixon will still face a criminal charge of aggravated assault for allegedly trying to harm the judge with his vehicle.
Mitchell said the only reason the complaint had any legs was because it was filed by a judge. Mitchell said Dixon drove his SUV no more than 15 mph, did not recognize Hartley as the pedestrian walking across the street and certainly did not try to hurt him as he eased by.
C. Barry Crutchfield, the special prosecutor for the disciplinary board, tells a different story.
He said Dixon's SUV reached a speed of 25 mph and was aimed like a weapon at Dixon's old nemesis, Judge Hartley.
"Animosity is not something that is a stranger to Eric Dixon," Crutchfield told me.
It was Crutchfield who brought Dixon's writings into the disciplinary case. Crutchfield said he considered Dixon's personal attacks on Hartley to be a violation of the rules of professional responsibility for attorneys.
Crutchfield ultimately dropped that charge. Even so, he said Dixon's bitter strain, as evidenced in his writings, led him to target the judge.
A hearing panel of the disciplinary board found Dixon guilty of misconduct and recommended that the Supreme Court suspend him from the practice of law. But then a review board appointed by the court overturned that finding. Next the Supreme Court itself will review Dixon's case.
The state already has spent too much time and money on Hartley's complaint. The judge and his father played in the public arena. They should have known it was a lot more dangerous than crossing Main Street in Clovis.
Milan Simonich is the Santa Fe bureau chief for Texas-New Mexico Newspapers. He can be reached at 505-820-6898. His blog is at nmcapitolreport.com.