Courthouse coup

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

Jackson, meanwhile, is enjoying all the hand-wringing. The veteran commissioner from Precinct 1 in northwest Dallas is legendary for loosing invective on Democrats and others with whom he disagrees. And it is largely through the force of that invective--through sheer intimidation, delivered in a prodigious flow of letters and threats and phone calls--that he manages to exert an astonishing degree of control over the county's courthouses. Though he does control a spoils system of sorts, primarily in the form of appointing county boards as well as the right to fill the occasional empty county court bench, he shares even those privileges with three other commissioners and County Judge Lee Jackson, some of whom have their own very independent minds. Truth be told, Jackson doesn't even "control" his own perceived political hatchetpersons, Kay Copeland and Bill Simpson.

Yet, through sheer bluff and an impressive array of bullying tactics, Jackson has managed to install himself as the Republican Party's right-wing mercy killer. In Jackson's own eyes, he's doing the party a service, targeting the GOP's weak sheep while making local government responsive to the will of the people. Even if that is mostly self-serving blarney, it's got the local judiciary quivering like so many scared rabbits.

"I'm not prepared to support every Republican, regardless of their record or their thoughts," says Jackson, sipping coffee at the large round table that dominates his corner office at the county road and bridge building. Beside the table is a 8-foot-high American flag; nearby, behind his utterly conventional brown desk, is an artist's rendering of Ronald Reagan circa 1980.

Although the props seem to fit his reputation as a member of the flag-waving Christian right, his personal political philosophies are not so easy to peg. There's Jackson's Steve Forbes, taxes-before-all-else side, which worries about tax rates and triple-A bond ratings. There's the Christie Todd Whitman content-neutral, cut-the-cost-of-car-insurance pandering to middle-class constituents. But above all else, there's a real strain of William Jennings Bryan populist rabble-rouser.

"One of the things I've told the judges is that 25 years ago, when I was part of the Republican movement to take over county government, we promised some things, including openness in government," Jackson says. "And the thing that I fear most is us becoming them.

"In part, that's the nature of power," he continues. "And that's why I don't want to be the party chairman. I don't want to defend the status quo. I want to reform the Republican Party and make it more idealistic. Unless we're the watchdogs, the other party will be the watchdogs."

As his comments suggest, Jackson got his start as a storm-the-walls outsider, a good-government reform advocate. And even though he's been around for long enough to see the political landscape change, he's never really relinquished that role. He got his start in the late '50s and early '60s, when Republicans in Dallas County were scarce. "I first met Jim Jackson 30 years ago," recalls Copeland, a longtime Jackson friend and political ally.

"I got home from the grocery store, and he was waiting on my porch. He was the Republican Party head, and he had me down as the precinct chairman, and he wanted me to give him the records. I didn't have them, but I went with him to get them from the guy I'd given them to.

"We all grew up in the Republican party with real idealistic goals--open government and less government. Some of us still believe in that."

In 1974, Jackson ran his first campaign for commissioner on the promise that, if elected, he would make a judge resign. "His name was Judge Guthrie," Jackson recalls. "He was a county court judge in 1974, but he was really living in Colorado. The then-party chairman was depositing his check every two weeks."

Jackson won. The judge resigned.
He's continued to keep an eye on the local judiciary ever since. In the mid-'80s, Jackson grew angry when a number of judges gave their court reporters 5 percent raises, which Jackson felt were excessive. Never loath to say what he thinks, Jackson saw, and still sees, court reporters as overpaid sacred cows. "I think it's at least humorous, if not pathetic, that we're still using court reporters and have no incentive to use modern technology and be more efficient," Jackson complains. "Only in government do you protect jobs against change."

So Jackson and the other commissioners simply refused to fund the raises. The move sparked a sensational judge-commissioner brawl, the high point of which came when a courthouse cabal tried to indict the commissioners for "official oppression." In 1988 the Texas Supreme Court finally imposed a cease-fire by ruling that the commissioner's court had no discretion to withhold payment. Though the commissioners complied, the wounds never really healed.

Even then, it was largely a GOP family feud. Thus tensions eased little during the '80s, when the Republicans acquired their current lock on Dallas County elections. The courthouse was the first place the Democrats lost control. Since 1988, Dallas voters have elected exactly three Democrats to the county's trial courts. The last Democrat elected to a Dallas county trial court was John Creuzot in 1992; he subsequently switched parties. Impressively, this domination continued even during Gov. Ann Richards' turn in the statehouse. While Richards appointed Democrats to fill empty benches during her tenure (between elections, the governor fills empty district courts, while county commissioners fill vacant county courts), straight Republican voting picked them off at every election.

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