By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Did you know we have commie judges in Dallas? At least I think they're commies. Now look, I could be wrong. They may be Nazis. I'm going to leave that up to you. It looks to me as if either term would be politically accurate.
The point is that Dallas, which is always talking about how conservative it is, has become a kind of national capital of pro-government authority, anti-individual freedoms case law. We've got judges here handing down heel-clicking opinions that sound like something you'd get from Augusto Pinochet. Or Fidel Castro. Take your pick.
This weird brand of local case law, which by now has infected both the state and federal courts in Dallas, says that a government can sue citizens for criticizing it, opposing it in bond elections, even asking for information.
This all goes back to a reprehensible decision by the Dallas school board in 1992 to punish two public citizen critics for embarrassing it with a series of damaging revelations.
In a secret meeting, a tape of which was later made public, the board vowed to use a flurry of lawsuits to destroy Don Venable, a paralegal, and Richard Finlan, a real estate developer. Then-school board President Sandy Kress, a lawyer with Johnson & Gibbs, the city's most political law firm, thought it would be especially creative to hurt Venable and Finlan by also suing innocent family members who were not truly parties to anything with DISD, such as Venable's brother, who had once allowed him to use a fax machine to send a letter to the school district.
Kress told his fellow board members in the secret meeting: "I think putting them on the defensive, making them use their resources in defense, letting them know we are serious, bringing the brother in, you bet. Anybody that has any money, any clout in that deal, you bet, let them defend themselves for a while."
What was it that the two gadflies were saying that so incensed the school board? Could have been a lot of things. Could have had to do with the bank transaction the pair uncovered in which the district had deliberately refinanced $188 million in old debt at a much higher interest rate at InterFirst Bank--just in time to make InterFirst's books look better for federal auditors. And let me go on record as saying I am sure none of that stuff had anything to do with the fact that InterFirst was owned by local huge-wigs such as Ray Hunt, Trammell Crow, and the illustrious Edwin L. Cox Jr., the latter of whom confessed to bank fraud and was pardoned by George Bush I. (Yeah: Let's remember that the Bushes were handing out pardons, too, on their way out the door.)
Whatever it was that had made the downtown suits so angry with Venable and Finlan, Kress and others on the board thought a smart thing would be to take millions of dollars in tax money that might otherwise have been wasted teaching poor children how to read and spend it instead on hiring a bunch of expensive local lawyers to crush two of their critics. And the outcome of this Nixonian strategy?
Well, that was really the funniest part. The local lawyers screwed up so much that the two gadflies, neither of whom is a lawyer and both of whom represented themselves, won all the rounds for several years. The lesson would seem to be: If you're going to destroy somebody with phony lawsuits, you better hire your lawyers in New York.
The school district filed all kinds of weird racketeering and civil conspiracy suits against Finlan, Venable, and against a lawyer, Ronald D. Hinds, who had made the mistake of agreeing to represent Venable in one case. Eventually, almost all of those suits were either dropped or thrown out of court.
Meanwhile, Finlan and Venable persisted in thinking that as American citizens they had the right to ask DISD certain kinds of questions. On September 1, 1995, they sent a letter to then-school Superintendent Chad Woolery asking for all of the board members' campaign finance reports and backup information.
The genius legal team representing the district sued Finlan and Venable for requesting the information.
Finlan and Venable went to court and pointed out they not only had a constitutional right under the petition clause of the First Amendment to ask government a question, but there also happened to be a specific law on the books in Texas saying it was flat illegal for a government to sue a citizen because the citizen had asked for information.
Oops! The multimillion-dollar legal team must have missed that one. Maybe it was in one of those real thick books.
At this point, both Finlan and Hinds sued the school district separately, alleging that the district was using fake lawsuits to deprive them of their constitutional rights.
Normally, American courts have been wary of government lawsuits against citizens in which the government is obviously using trumped-up charges to go after its political critics. In 1927, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis summed up the underlying philosophy of the courts: "Those who won our independence believed...that public discussion is a political duty...They knew that...it is hazardous to discourage thought, hope, and imagination; that fear breeds repression; that repression breeds hate; that hate menaces stable government; that the path of safety lies in the opportunity to discuss freely supposed grievances and proposed remedies; and that the fitting remedy for evil counsels is good ones. Believing in the power of reason as applied through public discussion, they eschewed silence coerced by law--the argument of force in its worst form."