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Dallas City Attorney Warren Ernst announces retirement

posted on Nov 10, 2015

Dallas’ top lawyer is saying goodbye to City Hall, after two years on the job.

City Attorney Warren Ernst, 61, announced his retirement to the City Council during a closed executive session Tuesday. He said he would continue to serve for six months, unless a replacement is named more quickly.

Contracts for city attorneys are re-evaluated every two years, which is this fall for Ernst, who has worked in the City Attorney’s Office since 2003. He said that made good timing to step away from the city and join his wife, who retired two years ago.

“She’s reveling in Dallas, bicycles everywhere — to Bishop Arts, to White Rock Lake — visits our sons in San Francisco and New York. And I’m working,” he said.

Ernst’s announcement comes only weeks after documents became public detailing his extensive role in pursuing a felony investigation of council member Scott Griggs after accusations the council member yelled at city staffers. Griggs supporters accused Ernst of orchestrating a witch hunt against the council member, whose case was thrown out by a grand jury.

Ernst said he did the right thing handing concerns about Griggs mistreating staff over to police. He denied that case affected his decision to retire, or that his thoughts of retirement affected how he handled the case.

“Please quote that I laughed,” he said of the question. “My life choices are much bigger than that.”


Ernst started his working life as a cardiovascular technician in Washington D.C. in 1974, running to meet helicopters and ambulances and shocking people back to life with a defibrillator.

After earning Bachelor’s and Master of Business Administration degrees from the University of Maryland, he graduated from Boston College Law School in 1983. He moved to Dallas and spent 20 years as a corporate lawyer, representing clients in mergers and buyouts, doing tax analysis and securities regulation.

In 2003, former Dallas City Attorney Madeleine Johnson recruited Ernst to join the City Attorney’s Office.

“I realized I had reached a point where I missed doing good,” he said.

His first day on the job meant a pay cut and a crash course in police use of force law.

Ernst oversaw special projects for the city, including building the Omni Hotel and Klyde Warren Park. He called the legal challenges associated with negotiating those deals among his greatest accomplishments for the city.

The City Council named Ernst city attorney in October of 2013. Three members — Griggs, Philip Kingston and Sandy Greyson — opposed his appointment.

In that role, Ernst responded to a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development discrimination case that threatened to cost the city tens of millions of dollars. That was resolved without the city having to pay anything.

He began a federal lawsuit regarding airline disputes over Love Field gates. He’s particularly proud of writing a legal opinion saying city pension funds were required to extend benefits to same-sex spouses of employees, months before a U.S. Supreme Court decision making same-sex marriage a right.

What’s next

It will likely be months before Dallas City Council members pick Ernst’s replacement.

Hiring a city attorney in Dallas has typically meant a nationwide search for candidates, which is why Ernst offered the city a six-month notice. But only one of the city’s top attorneys has come from outside City Hall in the last 70 years.

The city attorney is the top legal advisor to the city and its representatives. He oversees a team of about 90 lawyers working for the city and a $15 million budget. Ernst makes $225,000 annually in the role.

Ernst called his time with Dallas the capstone of his legal career. He said he would miss the “endlessly fascinating” daily challenges and, most of all, the people at City Hall. But he won’t miss putting on a tie in the morning.

“I’ve been productive for 45 or more years and now it’s time to just be,” he said.