The Hon. Thomas G. Jones was angry, though nicely dressed.
It was 9:45 a.m. last Friday morning, and I was standing at the service counter of his court in a nondescript strip shopping center in South Oak Cliff, wanting to see some court files; it is the sort of mundane request reporters make in courthouses all over Dallas County every single day.
Apparently, though, allowing the public access to public records is something that isn't routinely done in this particular court. Jones' clerk, Rhonda Anderson, peered up at me as she shuffled paper, totally unmoved by the request. "You have to talk to the judge," she said.
But court files are public record, I explained--specifically, they are "presumed open to the general public," according to Rule 76a, Texas Rules of Civil Procedure.
"I said you have to talk to the judge," Anderson said, narrowing her eyes. "What's your name?"
Anderson bellowed my name and my mission to another clerk, who then went to talk to the judge.
Several minutes later, the esteemed justice of the peace for Dallas County Precinct 7 emerged from his office, without his black robe, but dressed impressively nonetheless in a natty suit and a spiffy tie. He was trailed by his ever-loyal bailiff, deputy constable Don Stafford.
"You put your request in writing, and you send it in," the judge bellowed to me from halfway across the room, catching the immediate attention of every single court clerk and court visitor in the room.
Seven months pregnant, I politely held up my request, already written, detailing the cases I wanted to see. "I have it right here for you, judge," I explained.
The judge was not impressed. "You put it in writing and give it to the district attorney's office," Jones said, "and I'll need to have a letter from them before I release anything to you." He turned to his clerks. "The staff is not to release any records until I have something from the DA's office," Jones instructed them.
But court records are open to the public, I reminded the judge. I had driven halfway across the county to see these files, and I had needed to look at them that day.
Jones whirled around, pointing his finger at me as he spoke. "You come back out here," he said angrily, "and I'll get your butt thrown out."
Ah, that judge. Such a fine judicial temperament--and not a leg to stand on, at least not a legal one.
"You're right, those records are public," assistant DA Don Davis, who handles all records requests for Dallas County, told me an hour later by phone. "Most judges turn them over with no problem. I'm not sure what to tell you except that you're entitled to the records. I'd get a writ of mandamus, which orders a public official to do what he's commanded under law to do."
Which, unfortunately, is sometimes the only way to get Judge Jones to obey the law.
As Thomas Jones was bellowing away last Friday, a pretty, 37-year-old woman named Debra Jones hesitantly approached me. "Are you writing something on this court--misconduct or something?" Jones asked. "I sure would like to talk to you."
So did the man with her, 69-year-old Shedrick Hall, a double amputee who slowly wheeled himself over to where Jones and I were standing.
Hall is a retired janitor for the Highland Park Methodist Church. A year ago, shortly after his legs were amputated for gangrene--a horror story unto itself--Hall sold his 1986 Cadillac to an Oak Cliff man named Joe Simpson for $3,000. But Simpson only paid him $1,900, Hall says, and after months waiting for the rest of the money, Hall filed a civil complaint against him in Jones' court.
Ever since then, Hall, by no means a learned man, has been yanked around unmercifully--by the judge he hoped would help him.
It all began when Hall showed up for his day in court several months ago. Though he had been told by a court clerk that both the defendant and the car would be made to show up to court on that date, Hall was the only one that came.
While non-appearance by the defendant normally results in a default judgment for the plaintiff, that didn't happen in this case. We tried to find out why, but neither Jones nor his chief clerk would release the court file or discuss the matter.
Apparently, though, the court simply failed to notify Simpson that he had a court date--at least that's what Simpson, who admits to owing Hall money, albeit only $600, told me when I reached him by phone last week.
Instead of resolving his problem, the court staff gave Hall a complicated document that he could not understand entitled "bond for writ of sequestration." Fill out that form, a dismissive clerk told Hall, and constables could seize his car until the matter was settled.
It hasn't happened. Even though Debra Jones, a smart, gentle soul who took pity on her former neighbor, helped him fill out the form.
Last Friday, Jones and Hall had come to court for the third week in a row. Outside, Hall's wife, son, daughter-in-law, and two small children sat crammed into an un-airconditioned 1991 Ford Escort, waiting for Hall to find justice. Inside, the court clerks were surly and unhelpful--the judge couldn't be bothered talking to Hall and his friend at all. The court clerks brusquely waved Hall and Jones away, telling them there were technical problems with the way they had filled out the form.