Courthouse coup

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

But the more Jackson thought about things, the more he realized the county didn't need to waste taxpayer money. The judges, he believed, had danwyded themselves by attempting to shield the parking records.

"They're wrong, and they're going to lose," says Jackson, chuckling.
Instead he decided to use the old rope-a-dope routine: Do nothing and watch your opponents tear themselves to shreds.

Although the district court judges unanimously voted to pull the heavyhanded, give-us-back-our-records gambit, the county court judges were at first seriously divided. The divisions led to more than a few hard feelings, according to several county court judges who asked not to be named.

"I really do hate to see this warring, especially between judges and judges," comments McDowell, one of the few jurists willing to be quoted for this article. "It makes it hard to put up a united front--against the commissioners or anyone else. And if the commissioners get you divided, it's bad."

Inevitably, it has increased Jackson's power, or at least the perception of power, which, in turn, increases his ability to pick off opponents. And there's nobody at the party level willing to stop him.

"I do not encourage anyone to run against an incumbent," says party chairman Driegert. "But I can't stop anyone." Driegert, who takes the laissez-faire approach to party leadership, maintains that this shows the "strength" of the Republican Party. "Some of the incumbents don't like it," he admits. "But as long as it stays in bounds and generates some interest, I think it's probably good."

What is clear is that Driegert's attitude has created an ideal situation for Jackson and friends. Like nature, politics abhors a vacuum, and in the absence of strong party leadership, Jackson is filling the void.

Ironically, he doesn't seem to be doing it for particularly idealistic reasons. Although he generally believes in open, efficient government and low taxes, he's acutely aware of the holes in his lovingly compiled statistics on judges' workloads.

"One thing that jumps out at me is, they're not consistent with the parking records," says Jackson. "Some of the judges that appear to be at the courthouse least have the highest number of dispositions."

And he's not particularly interested in trying to measure arguably more telling tough-on-crime factors, such as severity of punishment or the incidence of probation revocations.

He has all he wants to know.
Which is exactly what the judges fear. And they don't much care whether they've been targeted for ideological reasons or for spending or for laziness or for refusing to kowtow to the commissioners court. Any way you slice it, "it's a threat to the independence of the judiciary," says Michael Keasler, who sits on the 292nd District bench.

Given talk like this, it should come as no surprise that Jackson has long had Keasler in his crosshairs, although whether this is because of Keasler's legendarily lax work habits or his judicial "independence" or his close alliance with longtime Jackson foe McDowell is anyone's guess. But many at the courthouse believe Keasler is one of the reasons Jackson leaked the parking records to the media. (According to the Texas Lawyer article, Keasler's work habits are the worst at the criminal courthouse, averaging 20 hours a week.) Since last summer, word had been circulating that Keasler was vulnerable, and in fact, by the end of the summer, he had drawn an opponent: Danny Clancy, a young Jackson protege.

Keasler countered by announcing he would not seek re-election, but instead would run for an even higher judicial office. "That way, even if he loses, he isn't a defeated judge, so he can still sit as a visiting judge even if they change the guidelines," explains one lawyer close to Keasler. (After county criminal court judge Hank Wade Jr., who now sits on the county court bench, told the commissioners that he wanted to run for Keasler's bench, Clancy lowered his sights to Wade's bench.)

Jackson's attempts to knock off judges don't always succeed. In 1996 he recruited Keith Anderson to run against criminal district judge John Creuzot in the Republican primary. Anderson lost the race, but was rewarded with an appointment to a county criminal court bench in late 1996.

And so far this year, Jackson has been unable to recruit anyone to run against civil District Judge Ann Ashby. According to a number of Republican Party stalwarts, Ashby was targeted because of an unspecified falling-out she had with Brad Jackson, a Dallas attorney, Republican, and, not coincidentally, Commissioner Jackson's son.

Jackson father and son both believed Ashby might be vulnerable because of the flap that followed when, after she presided over a long and emotionally intense child molestation civil suit against the Rev. Rudy Kos and the Catholic church, Ashby hugged several of the plaintiffs.

Ironically, Jackson will apparently split with Copeland and Jackson in several March party contests. While Simpson and Copeland are representing Bob Jenevein, Jackson was one of the commissioners responsible for appointing incumbent Victoria Welcome in the first place. "Simpson and I may be on different sides of that one."

They will likely split, as well, over the Marshall Gandy-David Finn contest for County Court at Law No. 10. Although Jackson had promised to support Gandy, he believes that Gandy's action in signing the November 6 order has released him from that obligation. And he sees Finn, a former assistant U.S. attorney, as "the kind of new, young spirit we need in the Republican party."

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