In 1996, Peggy Hoffman was feeling a bit restless in her native Dallas. So she loaded up her belongings, moved to New York City and eventually landed a job that’s familiar to anyone who’s watched any one of the multiple versions of NBC’s “Law and Order” television series.
“I was young and single and burned out,” says Hoffman, who was working as a prosecutor in the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office when she decided to head north. “My sister and cousin were there. And it was a good time to try something new.”
Initially, Hoffman landed a job as an associate with Martin Clearwater & Bell defending medical-malpractice claims — a job that she realized after 10 months wasn’t for her.
|Video: Judge Peggy Hoffman, Dallas County Criminal Court No. 9|
“I realized my love and passion was criminal law. So I went to the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office as a felony prosecutor. And I was promoted to homicide division and did high-profile cases,” Hoffman says. “We would do vertical prosecution and catch the case when it was filed and work with the police officers” until the case was eventually resolved in court, she says, just like in the TV show.
“I always say practicing in New York is more like ‘Law and Order’ than practicing in Dallas. And if the defendants wanted to speak with me, I would go out in the middle of the night with a video camera and take their statements. It was great,” she says.
Prosecutors here usually don’t get the case until after it’s indicted. There they work with witnesses to prep them before they go into the grand jury.
However, Hoffman says she originally only had planned to live in New York City for two years. “And I had been there for six years, and I wanted to come home. I missed my family,” she says.
So she came back to Dallas and, wanting a new challenge, became a solo criminal-defense attorney.
She later decided to run as a Democrat for Dallas County Criminal Court No. 9 at just the right time: 2006, the year Democrats swept every trial bench in the county. Looking back, she just as easily could have won a district court bench, where she would have handled felonies instead of misdemeanor offenses. Yet, she says she’s exactly where she wants to be.
“I just thought I could have a better ability to impact peoples’ lives on this bench. There are so many young people and first-time offenders that come through misdemeanor court that are not necessarily hard-core offenders. And I love being in trial,” Hoffman says. “And I thought this was the perfect bench for me.”
Off the bench, Hoffman is an avid distance runner who has completed 13 marathons in 10 states and in Ireland. Yet she’s slowed the marathon pace a bit, as she recently adopted 15 month-old boy from Kazakhstan named Christopher.
“I take my baby on runs with a stroller,” Hoffman says. “I feel so good right now.”
Texas Lawyer senior reporter John Council, who ran one marathon in 2000 and hung up his running shoes shortly thereafter in lieu of having knee surgery, e-mailed Hoffman some questions to ponder. Here are her answers, edited for length and style.
Judge Peggy Hoffman
Criminal County No. 9
Elected to the Bench: 2006
Texas Lawyer: What should every lawyer tell their client before entering your courtroom?
Judge Peggy Hoffman: Every lawyer should tell the client that this is the client’s day in court and I will treat each case as carefully as if it were my day in court. They can expect to be treated with respect and in a just manner. They should know I will listen closely to all arguments. I will follow the law, and they can be assured of a fair trial and if guilty, all punishment arguments will be considered.
TL: What should every lawyer have worked out before they present a plea bargain to you?
Hoffman: If it is an agreed plea, the length of jail time, probation and fine should be worked out prior to appearing before me.
TL: What lawyer courtroom habits drive you crazy?
Hoffman: I am very flexible regarding attorneys appearing before me, as I realize they have many different courts and counties in which they must appear. The only habit that drives me crazy is chewing gum.
TL: Presume there is a case in front of you in which it’s a tough call whether to give probation to a defendant or send them to jail. What factors would push you towards sentencing the defendant to probation?
Hoffman: Each case is unique, and I cannot say I would use the following factors in every case or in any future cases. However, some factors which have been presented to me in previous cases include prior criminal history; how the defendant behaved on bond; intent to be in school or employed; nature and severity of the crime; complaining witness’ rights, restitution and desires; and whether the defendant has completed some conditions of probation while on bond.
TL: Let’s say a lawyer completely blows it and fails to show up for a scheduled hearing. What will you do?
Hoffman: Most of the time this occurs because the attorney is held in another court or it was left off of their docket by mistake. Having been a criminal-defense attorney myself, I understand that attorneys need to be in several places at once. If they do not appear, we will call their office to locate them, and this usually solves the problem. If the attorney has completely blown off the court proceeding without an acceptable excuse, I will admonish the attorney regarding the rules of the court.
TL: What can an attorney do to make your job easier?
Hoffman: It is helpful if attorneys advise the court whether or not they are ready for trial in a timely manner. This may be done on the phone or in person. This allows the court to call the cases on the trial docket and decide which case will go to trial. If an attorney does not appear or inform the court they will be late or in another court and they have the oldest case on the docket, other attorneys, witnesses and defendants are inconvenienced while we locate the attorney.
TL: What will you absolutely not tolerate in your courtroom?
Hoffman: I am extremely tolerant of dress, however, I will not tolerate gym shorts or torn clothes.
TL: What is the best argument a lawyer can make to convince you to lower a bond?
Hoffman: I have heard many good, convincing arguments over the years, and as long as it is a legitimate and reasonable one, I will consider it.
TL: What rule of evidence do lawyers continually trip over in your courtroom?
Hoffman: Many lawyers do not understand how to impeach a witness with a prior inconsistent statement.
TL: Was Frank Sinatra right when he said if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere?
John Council is on Twitter at www.twitter.com/john_council. “Approach the Bench” is a periodic column in Texas Lawyer.
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