Courthouse coup

How County Commissioner Jim Jackson and his right-wing Republican cronies have Dallas' judges running scared

Late one day last week, after presiding over a full day of misdemeanors, Dallas County Criminal Court at Law Judge Dan L. Wyde hied himself from the Frank Crowley Criminal Courts Building to a run-down area of strip shopping centers, Korean grocers, and small warehouses near the intersection of Royal Lane and Interstate 35.

Around 5:30 p.m. on November 19, he pulled into the parking lot of the county road and bridge office that for more than two decades has served as Dallas County Commissioner Jim Jackson's seat of power. Wyde's mission was urgent, or so he had told the commissioner that afternoon in begging for an audience. Indeed, Wyde's purpose was nothing less than to save his own political hide.

Extracting himself from his late-model coupe, Wyde hurried into the 10-room, single-story flagstone- and siding-covered building where Jackson, the man who would be king of Dallas County government, waited.

Since being sworn in 23 years ago this month, Jackson, a 58-year-old Republican warlord, has earned nationwide notice for promoting pet right-wing causes, like prohibiting AIDS programs that feature condom and needle distribution. But while few have noticed it, over the years Jackson's favorite target of all (next to taxes, naturally) has been the judicial branch of government, which Jackson has long suspected of harboring anti-democratic tendencies. In recent months he has turned up the heat on the county's judges, gathering information on their work habits, he says, in order to promote a more efficient judiciary.

His detractors see a more sinister motive. They say Jackson wants nothing less than to control Dallas County's court system. And indeed, through a combination of bluff, bluster, and savvy political maneuvering, Jackson has become the man whose blessing virtually everyone at the county seeks and whose enmity many fear. So it was not surprising that Wyde, at 34 the newest criminal courts judge on the bench in Dallas County, sought out Jackson when Wyde found himself, once again, in trouble.

Unfortunately, since his appointment last May, his young honor has endured a humiliating series of press revelations. First came the disclosure that less than two months before Jackson and the other four members of the commissioners court tapped Wyde for the bench, the Dallas County District Attorney's Office had fired him for alleged unethical behavior. Depending upon whose version you believe, Wyde either submitted a false affidavit, disobeyed superiors in attempting to hold a witness in contempt, or both.

That news was followed by the perjury case against Nina Shahravan. Both defense and prosecutors claimed that Wyde had said he would not consider probation for Shahravan since she had "inconvenienced influential people," namely Cowboys Erik Williams and Michael Irvin, whom she falsely accused of rape. Wyde denied making the statement, but both sides claim he lied to avoid removal from the case.

Then came the revelation late last month that Ken Mayfield, a commissioner instrumental in Wyde's appointment, continues to practice law in Wyde's court.

Yet in a world where the general public knows little and cares less about the judges it elects, none of this might have mattered but for one complication: Wyde had drawn two opponents in the upcoming March Republican primary. The district attorney's office yielded the most serious challenger, Nick Cariotis, a popular assistant district attorney who runs the office's hot check division. And Cariotis was certain to raise the topinc of Wyde's screw-ups during the upcoming race.

The prospect of an opponent may explain, but hardly excuses, the monumentally stupid mistake Wyde made late last month, when--in the midst of a hearing, on the record--he asked a defendant's lawyer whether he was supporting Cariotis. Given the level of schadenfreude in the halls of the criminal courthouse these days, the story was bound to out. And indeed, on November 17, one of Wyde's fellow misdemeanor judges, Vickers Cunningham, reported Wyde to the State Commission on Judicial Conduct--and worse still, to The Dallas Morning News.

By the middle of last week, things looked so bleak for Wyde that his name had inspired a new usage around the courthouse, as a synonym for "self-inflicted wound." "I almost danwyded myself in court today," announced one wag during a judicial fundraiser.

Yet as of the morning of November 19, Wyde still had one important factor going for him: Jackson. Indeed, it was Jackson who, last May, had provided the critical swing vote catapulting the unemployed Wyde to the bench ahead of at least two more-qualified candidates. (Jackson, who says he believes in keeping his word, had promised to support Wyde if he came up with two other votes. To Jackson's surprise, he says, Wyde not only came up with the support of Commissioner Mayfield, but nabbed the vote of ever-unpredictable Commissioner John Wiley Price.)

During a three-hour interview with the Dallas Observer the morning of Wyde's audience, Jackson had suggested that everyone from a vengeful district attorney's office to a cliquish criminal defense bar to a hacked-off set of elitist judges had the long knives out for his protege. While he was clearly concerned that the hapless Wyde couldn't seem to avoid impaling himself, Jackson still suspected that Wyde was being targeted unfairly. "I wish he'd just keep his mouth shut," Jackson had lamented.

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