Judge Fudge

Margaret Keliher hopes people won't know what office she's really running for

For years, Dallas County Judge Lee Jackson told witty jokes about how nobody really knew what a county judge was. Now Margaret Keliher, the Republican candidate to replace Jackson in November, is trying to turn the joke into a campaign strategy.

Keliher is a sitting civil district judge in Dallas County, pulling down a salary of $111,000. If she can hang on to her judge job until November, she will complete four years on the bench and qualify to become a "visiting judge," one of the great honey pots in Texas elective politics. Some visiting judges make as much as $300,000 a year.

The problem is that the Texas "State Code of Judicial Conduct" orders judges to resign their judgeships if they become candidates in "a contested election for a nonjudicial office."

Margaret Keliher uses images of herself in a judge's robe in campaign literature.
Margaret Keliher uses images of herself in a judge's robe in campaign literature.

Guess what? County judge in Dallas County is totally nonjudicial. The county judge is really the chairman or president of the county commission. The fact that the office is even called "judge" in Texas or has any vestigial ceremonial judginess about it at all is a quaint hangover from the distant past.

But Keliher is arguing that the office of county judge is still a judicial office, so she should not have to give up her comfortable salary or her shot at a cushy visiting judgeship.

It's not that Keliher couldn't make a good run at it without the robes. If anything, she is blessed with assets. A CPA and former president of the Park Cities Republican Women's Club, Keliher is the daughter of lawyer James Coleman, of whom another Texas lawyer recently said in The New York Times, "In the North Texas area, Jim is a god." By clutching her judgeship in spite of the ethical and legal cloud, Keliher comes across like a kid who won't share her birthday cake.

Raising political money from lawyers is generally believed to be much easier if you happen to be a judge in whose court the lawyer or the lawyer's firm might one day argue a case. According to campaign finance reports filed so far, Keliher has raised $137,250 against only $39,346 raised by her Democratic opponent, state Representative Harryette Ehrhardt.

Exactly half of Keliher's money has been in contributions from lawyers--137 of them--who have kicked in an average of $500 apiece. Keliher's lawyer money alone is 170 percent of Ehrhardt's total fund raising.

It gets stickier. The state ethics rules for judges say that judges running for judicial office "shall not make statements that indicate an opinion on any issue that may be subject to judicial interpretation." At an open candidates forum before the Greater Dallas Association of Realtors, both Keliher and Ehrhardt answered a broad range of questions about county government and county political issues, and both filled out detailed questionnaires giving their positions on specific issues.

According to people who were present, Keliher gave opinions on the county's role in financing Parkland hospital, for example, and on affordable housing initiatives, both of which have been in and out of the local courts on a fairly regular basis over the years.

It didn't do Keliher a lot of good. The Realtors endorsed Ehrhardt. But which is it going to be? Is she running for a judicial post, in which case she can't comment on specific issues? Or is she running for an administrative post, in which case she can talk on issues but must resign from the bench?

Keliher also has plastered Solomonic images of herself all over her own campaign literature wearing her judge robes and holding law books. The state canon of ethics is clear that judges are not to use their judgeships as leverage in nonjudicial politics.

The whole thing is an ethical gumbo. She gives the impression of trying to slip through a lawyer crack when the reality is plain as the side of a barn: The county judge ain't no judge.

Ask Lee Jackson, a Republican and a Keliher supporter. He started out by giving me some interesting technical arguments why someone would argue that the county judge is a judge, including the fact that the county judge has to sign a piece of paper every year telling the state that he has no judicial duties so that he won't have to take refresher courses for judges.

But the point is, every year for the 16 years that Lee Jackson has held the post, he has signed that piece of paper, because, like virtually all county judges in major urban counties in Texas, Jackson had no judging to do.

"I've got too many other things to do, in my opinion," he said. "There is not any dispute about what my workload has been. I've done 100 percent nonjudicial activities. It's a full-time job, and I think that is the best way to use my time."

No kidding.

Even if he could, why would the chief executive officer of a county with an annual budget of a third of a billion dollars want to leave his or her office every day, go down into one of the county courts at law or probate courts under his authority and hear drunken driving cases and disputed wills?

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