Herman: A county attorney and his dog — and the attorney general

A Northeast Texas commissioners court has barred Titus County Attorney John Mark Cobern from continuing to bring to his courthouse office something he says helps prevent mass shootings.

We’re not talking AK-47. We’re talking K-9.

And we’re not talking trained attack dog. We’re talking about Belle, an ailing 16-year-old Dachshund that Cobern’s had since law school.

Cobern has asked Attorney General Greg Abbott for an official opinion on whether the Titus County Commissioners Court has the authority to regulate what goes on, such as bringing a dog to work, in the offices of elected officials. The commissioners, reacting to a complaint about Belle, have banned all non-service animals from the courthouse in Mount Pleasant, in Northeast Texas.

For Abbott, an ambitious politician and dog lover who considers his dog, Oreo, part of his family, this could be a ruff decision. (I didn’t want to make that pun but it’s part of our outreach to younger readers. You never know when a second-grader might be reading this stuff.)

Cobern’s been bringing Belle to work since his days in private practice. Belle was sitting next to Cobern on Monday when he called me from his private law office away from the courthouse. It’s not unusual for small-town county attorneys to have a private practice in addition to their public duties.

Cobern, an Aggie, got Belle during his first semester at law school in Houston. “She laid in my lap for hours at a time while I studied. She was always with me,” he said. “And she is always with me now. I can’t go to the bathroom by myself.”

Too much information? Perhaps, but it helps explain the relationship.

At the courthouse, Belle had spent her time in Cobern’s private office, separate from where his staff is and where the public enters.

Belle was banned when Titus County Commissioner Thomas Hockaday took the matter to his colleagues after fielding a complaint from an unidentified complainant. The Mount Pleasant Daily Tribune reported the animal ban was approved despite opposition from Titus County Judge Brian Lee, who questioned commissioners’ authority to regulate what goes on in the offices of elected officials.

“Well,” Hockaday replied, according to the local paper, “what would we do if everyone brought their dog to the courthouse?”

Good question. I don’t know what we would do.

Cobern is devoted to Belle, who suffers from a glandular ailment that killed another dog of his, and now is making his case to Abbott. In addition to the legal argument about commissioners’ authority, Cobern felt the need to tell Abbott something about Belle.

“The primary reason for bringing my dog to the county office was to make my office a safer work environment,” he told the AG, noting his job puts him in contact with “the mentally ill and potentially unstable individuals.”

“These are the types of individuals who are prone to extreme acts of violence such as the mass shootings we have witnessed recently,” Cobern wrote. “It has been my experience that a dog’s presence often can have a calming effect (on) these individuals. With the violence directed towards prosecutors, I feel that a dog’s presence in my office makes my work environment safer.”

I have my thoughts on this deal, but it seems like one for the court of public opinion, which, by the power vested in me, I hereby am calling to order.

Ladies and gentlemen of the court of public opinion, what is it we have here? Is this big government gone amok and sticking its nose where it should not?

Or is it a dog-loving elected official stretching for reasons to do something he wants to do?

Or, possibly, is it that our well-paid state attorney general has to spend time on this just another sign that the apocalypse approacheth?

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