Courthouse coup

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

The commissioners court--which is of course not a "court" at all, but the management and budgetary arm of county government--was slower to change composition. But the November 1994 elections that gave the Republicans dominance in Congress also changed the commissioners court, sweeping in Ken Mayfield and Mike Cantrell, both of whom ran as ultra-right-wing conservatives.

With the election of Mayfield and Cantrell, Jackson had the votes to implement his agenda. Within six months of the November '94 elections, the commissioners made national news by voting to scotch the distribution of condoms, needle sterilization kits, and explicit literature about sexually transmitted diseases. In 1995, the commissioners passed a resolution urging Congress to adopt a school-prayer amendment.

Jackson wasted no time testing his newfound political muscle, embarking on a quixotic quest to oust Ron Anderson, president and chief executive officer of Parkland Hospital. And the way he attempted it was instructive. "I'm just not sure he is doing as good a job in financial management as he is in health-care management," Jackson told the Observer in 1995. But others disagreed, pointing out that Anderson had actually improved the hospital's finances, and that Parkland was actually less of a drain on taxpayer money than it had been when Anderson took over.

Cantrell, who has turned out to be more independent than anticipated, concluded that Anderson was doing a "fantastic job" in the financial department, and Jackson's attempted ouster failed. Today, Jackson readily admits he used financial oversight as a fig leaf to attack Anderson, whose liberal views and Democratic party affiliations irked Jackson. "Oh, I think that's absolutely true," Jackson concedes. To some degree, he admits, he's probably doing the same thing with the courts.

In 1996, Jackson ordered the county budget office to start compiling courthouse statistics. The result is a series of "Dallas County Management Reports" containing 32 double-sided pages of numbers and graphs analyzing the workload of individual judges--everything from their court operating expenses to the number of cases they disposed of to the number of days they used visiting judges to fill in for them.

After viewing the information, the commissioners, led by Jackson, initiated what one letter euphemistically terms "an ongoing dialogue...[with] the Dallas County judges over the use of visiting judges." Jackson was keenly interested in visiting judges, and not just because he clearly suspected that the county courthouses harbored a few judicial slackers. (In one letter to "All Dallas County Judges," Jackson somewhat disingenuously claims that he has no specific "reason to believe there are...judges who put forth less than honorable efforts, although I've heard rumors.")

Indeed, Jackson's primary beef seems to have been over who was getting the visiting judge jobs. As administrative head of the judicial region, McDowell controls the use of visiting judges, who are former, retired, or even regular judges tapped to fill in temporarily for another judge when he or she is sick, on vacation, or simply overwhelmed by caseloads. The state Legislature fixes the rules determining eligibility to serve in these lucrative slots, which are themselves a powerful form of political patronage. In many counties, including Dallas, visiting judges can sit on "temporary" courts, such as special drug courts, for years. And while the state picks up most of the costs for visiting judges, the county does provide supplements to their salaries and also picks up 100 percent of the costs of any additional personnel, such as court reporters and bailiffs.

In a letter to McDowell, Jackson summed his objections. "I have long expressed my personal displeasure with you appointing defeated judges, especially those who never got re-elected once," Jackson wrote. "Those of us who believe in an elected judiciary rightfully ask if a judge is defeated...why should he become an appointed full-time judge in Dallas County?"

Jackson insists the issue wasn't simply whether defeated Democrats were sneaking in the back door. "Judge Stephens is one of the ones I'm maddest about," Jackson fumes. A Republican, Gary Stephens was defeated by challenger Mark Tolle in the 1986 Republican primary. But during the '80s, while he still sat on the district court bench, Stephens presided over the grand jury that tried to indict the commissioners. He now sits semi-permanently as a visiting judge hearing child indecency cases.

But McDowell, no stranger to the art of judge-commissioner infighting, was deeply suspicious of Jackson's motives. A tall, cagey, silver-haired Republican with a gift for gab and a passion for, in his words, "pranking" with Commissioner Jackson, McDowell is fiercely protective of the sitting Dallas County judges. And he viewed Jackson's demands for financial information with alarm. "I really hate to see Republican elected officials picking each other off," explains McDowell.

McDowell sent Jackson a reply defending the use of visiting judges on fiscal grounds, pointing out that in most cases, virtually all of a visiting judge's salary is paid by the state, not the county. McDowell also disclaimed any real control over patronage, since in most cases the judges themselves chose who sat in their absence. And he resisted turning the visiting-judge information over.

"There is no doubt that there are those who want to make this a political issue," McDowell wrote the judges. "In time I may release a list showing which judges were assigned to particular courts, but I am not even sure I will do that given the current atmosphere."

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