Courthouse coup

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

As McDowell expected, Jackson didn't take this lying down, but began firing off prickly requests for information--including who was requesting defeated judges and how often. Between March and July this year, McDowell and Jackson crossed letters. Jackson's thrusts included Public Information Act requests, while his parries contained some interesting denials. "Some of you may have heard the rumor that Kay Copeland and/or I are going into the political consulting business with Bill Simpson. That is incorrect...I will not solicit or accept political consulting fees from anyone as long as I am in public office. It should also be noted that as long as Kay is working as my assistant, I will expect the same from her."

In response, McDowell made his position clear. "I don't work for the county commissioners," the plainspoken jurist told fellow judges. "I work for you."

"I really was just trying to make sure that they (the records) were accurate," McDowell explains. "And I didn't think he was entitled to them. But I'd already turned them over to The Dallas Morning News and to the Dallas Bar, so in the end I decided he ought to get them too."

In July, McDowell sent the information to Jackson. For almost two months, tensions eased at the courthouses. And then, in September, two things ratcheted up the hostilities again. The first was a small item in Texas Lawyer suggesting that Jackson's analysis of the parking records had found some judges' work habits wanting. And the second was the announcement that Copeland was retiring as Jackson's longtime assistant.

She was going into the consulting business with Bill Simpson.

The judges were surprised to learn that Jackson had their parking records. (Jackson apparently got them directly from county data-processing employees.) Between the parking records and the visiting judge information, they saw Jackson's information-gathering as a thinly veiled attempt to stockpile ammunition for use against political opponents in the upcoming election.

The disclosure hit just as everyone was jockeying for position in the upcoming elections, and it sent the judges into a panic. They called an emergency meeting to decide what to do. "I got invited to a meeting at noon in late September," recalls Judge McDowell. "That's where I heard about the threats Copeland and Simpson were supposedly making."

"They told [a county civil court judge] 'We've got all this info; you might want to consider using us,'" says one criminal district court judge, who, like most of the dozen judges interviewed for this article, stipulated that his name not be used for fear of Jackson-Copeland-Simpson.

The civil court judge he referred to denies that Copeland and Simpson have put "the bite" on him, although he also begged to keep his name out of this article for fear of friendly fire. And he passed on another couple of rumors. He has heard that the commissioners have secret cameras planted in the garages to watch when judges come and go. Some have heard that Bill Simpson is manually clocking them in and out and videotaping in the judges' garages. If true, it would be a familiar pattern for Simpson, who is well known for videotaping the license plates of strip-bar patrons and then sending notices to their wives.

In mid-September, several judges even accused Copleand and Simpson of blackmailing judges in an attempt to get political consulting business, Jackson says. The accusation makes Copeland laugh.

"They are just hysterical over Bill Simpson," she marvels. "I even heard one rumor that Bill had followed a judge inside a topless bar videotaping. It's just silly. Bill would never go into one of those places.

"If people were doing their job, why would they be so nervous?" she asks from home. Since retiring from the county on October 30, she has worked part time on one Dallas judicial campaign--that of Bob Jenevein, a lawyer challenging incumbent county court at law judge Victoria Welcome.

Given the general level of panic, it is no surprise that the judges took drastic action. On September 23, the district judges served Jackson with an order requiring him to turn over all copies of the parking records, and with a gag order purporting to prohibit both Jackson and Copeland from even talking about the information.

They were too late. Jackson had already given a copy of the judges' parking records to Texas Lawyer. Local CBS affiliate Channel 11 also managed to get the information, although Jackson says he is unsure just how.

"They may have gotten them from Bill Simpson," Jackson says innocently. "And I assume that if Bill gave them to Channel 11, he got them from here. He may well have gotten them from a floppy or something. But whatever was given to [the reporter] was not direct. It wasn't like I said, 'Here, Bill, give them to her.' But on the other hand, I kinda wish I had."

Jackson considered challenging the judges in court, he says, in a reprise of the mid-'80s judges-commissioners feud. The commissioners even sought a legal opinion and were told that if they spent the money to get the case to the Supreme Court, they'd eventually win.

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