Courthouse coup

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

But by mid-afternoon, Jackson had reversed course. The change was prompted by a fax Jackson received from Bill Simpson, a Republican activist, political consultant, and Jackson political ally. Simpson's communique was a simple, one-page memo signed by Wyde and 11 other county criminal court judges in response to an open records request from the Observer seeking the judges' parking records at the courthouse. The one-sentence memo declares that the records are not public documents, but rather "records of the judiciary" that can be withheld from public scrutiny under a controversial recent opinion of the Texas Supreme Court.

Simpson might as well have pinned a toreador's glittering jacket and skin-tight pants on Wyde and waved a red cape before Jackson.

"There are some members of the judiciary who have always been adamant about being a separate unit of government, unaccountable to the people or the other branches," Jackson had said that very morning. "They may not be responsible to me as a commissioner, but they're all responsible to the taxpayers, and to me as a voter."

A large man with bifocals, fleshy features, a mouth curved into a frown, and thinning dark hair combed over his head with the aid of something wet, Jackson can at first appear stuffy and slightly disapproving, like an aging accountant or a small-town bank president. But when he opens his mouth, the stern facade melts away. Without ever actually smiling, Jackson manages to be charming, disarming, mirthful, and combative at the same time. He accomplishes this feat mostly through the expressive quality of his dancing pale-blue eyes and the lilt of his surprisingly soft, melodic voice.

"If you say any judiciary has no responsibility to answer to the public, that's an oligarchy, not a democracy," Jackson continued. "If you remove the judiciary from the oversight of the people, it becomes a superior office. Any office that does not derive its power directly from the people will become dominant."

Jackson is on a one-man mission to keep the black robes in their proper place. Any sign of uppityness, such as withholding the judges' parking records from press and public scrutiny, is guaranteed to incur Jackson's wrath. And around the courthouses it is taken as an article of faith that he or she who incurs the wrath of Jackson risks terrible retributions, up to and including the unleashing of much-feared political pit bulls Bill Simpson and Kay Copeland, Jackson's former administrative assistant who, just last month, left the city's employ to join Simpson in the political consulting business.

Given the possible penalties, Dan Wyde got off light. His penance for signing the November 6 order was relatively mild: a letter saying Commissioner Jackson was withdrawing his support. Nor was Wyde the only county court judge who received such a letter. Tom Fuller and Marshall Gandy, both county court judges fending off Republican primary challengers, received similar letters. Wyde was simply the most desperate. Which prompted his pilgrimage to the Jackson political compound.

"I gave him a choice," explains Jackson two days later. "He could either write a letter to the DA's office, saying he was releasing his parking records, or I was withdrawing my support." The ultimatum wasn't as bad as it might have been. Jackson didn't, for example, go so far as to throw his support to Cariotis. Nor is he likely to, since Jackson also is involved in a longstanding feud with the district attorney's office over revenues from the hot check division, which Jackson accuses the district attorney's office of using "like a slush fund."

Gandy and Fuller may not be so lucky.

The first clues to the trouble brewing at the county's courthouses come from a glut of malicious tipping. Assistant district attorneys who usually wouldn't volunteer the names of their pet beagles suddenly ring up with scuttlebutt on judges. Judges and sheriffs' department employees alike offer up the dope on county commissioners, and the commissioners slip judges' parking records to reporters. And Simpson, in a dirt-dishing league of his own, forgives the Observer its recent unflattering portrait of him ["Mr. Nobody," August 14] long enough to proffer a guest list from high-profile criminal defense attorney Doug Mulder's Texas Stadium sky box, as well as a tidbit about a certain judge supposedly conducting virtual affairs on the Internet.

By the time judges start tattling on each other to journalists, it's pretty clear that either the stars are in some sort of spectacular misalignment or civil war has broken out in Dallas County's Republican-controlled courthouses. And it's also apparent that Jimmy Lee Jackson, longtime county commissioner from the city's northwest quadrant, is at the center of just about every skirmish.

"It's really disturbing that everyone seems to be so at odds," says Pat McDowell, a retired criminal district judge who serves as administrative head of the 34-county judicial region that includes Dallas. McDowell, who is one of the primary combatants, is the first to say that things have gotten out of hand. "It's not good for the judges to be warring with the commissioners, or with themselves. It's just not good government."

I just hope it stays within bounds," frets Bob Driegert, chairman of the Dallas County Republican Party. Though Driegert believes that tensions between Dallas County's "very frugal, cost-conscious" commissioners and the county's judiciary are to some degree "inevitable," he also believes that hostilities have escalated dangerously. "I'm not taking the position that this level of conflict is healthy," he says.

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