Undue process

The Hon. Thomas G. Jones was angry, though nicely dressed.
It was 9:45 a.m. last Friday morning, and I was standing at the service counter of his court in a nondescript strip shopping center in South Oak Cliff, wanting to see some court files; it is the sort of mundane request reporters make in courthouses all over Dallas County every single day.

Apparently, though, allowing the public access to public records is something that isn't routinely done in this particular court. Jones' clerk, Rhonda Anderson, peered up at me as she shuffled paper, totally unmoved by the request. "You have to talk to the judge," she said.

But court files are public record, I explained--specifically, they are "presumed open to the general public," according to Rule 76a, Texas Rules of Civil Procedure.

"I said you have to talk to the judge," Anderson said, narrowing her eyes. "What's your name?"

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Anderson bellowed my name and my mission to another clerk, who then went to talk to the judge.

Several minutes later, the esteemed justice of the peace for Dallas County Precinct 7 emerged from his office, without his black robe, but dressed impressively nonetheless in a natty suit and a spiffy tie. He was trailed by his ever-loyal bailiff, deputy constable Don Stafford.

"You put your request in writing, and you send it in," the judge bellowed to me from halfway across the room, catching the immediate attention of every single court clerk and court visitor in the room.

Seven months pregnant, I politely held up my request, already written, detailing the cases I wanted to see. "I have it right here for you, judge," I explained.

The judge was not impressed. "You put it in writing and give it to the district attorney's office," Jones said, "and I'll need to have a letter from them before I release anything to you." He turned to his clerks. "The staff is not to release any records until I have something from the DA's office," Jones instructed them.

But court records are open to the public, I reminded the judge. I had driven halfway across the county to see these files, and I had needed to look at them that day.

Jones whirled around, pointing his finger at me as he spoke. "You come back out here," he said angrily, "and I'll get your butt thrown out."

Ah, that judge. Such a fine judicial temperament--and not a leg to stand on, at least not a legal one.

"You're right, those records are public," assistant DA Don Davis, who handles all records requests for Dallas County, told me an hour later by phone. "Most judges turn them over with no problem. I'm not sure what to tell you except that you're entitled to the records. I'd get a writ of mandamus, which orders a public official to do what he's commanded under law to do."

Which, unfortunately, is sometimes the only way to get Judge Jones to obey the law.

As Thomas Jones was bellowing away last Friday, a pretty, 37-year-old woman named Debra Jones hesitantly approached me. "Are you writing something on this court--misconduct or something?" Jones asked. "I sure would like to talk to you."

So did the man with her, 69-year-old Shedrick Hall, a double amputee who slowly wheeled himself over to where Jones and I were standing.

Hall is a retired janitor for the Highland Park Methodist Church. A year ago, shortly after his legs were amputated for gangrene--a horror story unto itself--Hall sold his 1986 Cadillac to an Oak Cliff man named Joe Simpson for $3,000. But Simpson only paid him $1,900, Hall says, and after months waiting for the rest of the money, Hall filed a civil complaint against him in Jones' court.

Ever since then, Hall, by no means a learned man, has been yanked around unmercifully--by the judge he hoped would help him.

It all began when Hall showed up for his day in court several months ago. Though he had been told by a court clerk that both the defendant and the car would be made to show up to court on that date, Hall was the only one that came.

While non-appearance by the defendant normally results in a default judgment for the plaintiff, that didn't happen in this case. We tried to find out why, but neither Jones nor his chief clerk would release the court file or discuss the matter.

Apparently, though, the court simply failed to notify Simpson that he had a court date--at least that's what Simpson, who admits to owing Hall money, albeit only $600, told me when I reached him by phone last week.

Instead of resolving his problem, the court staff gave Hall a complicated document that he could not understand entitled "bond for writ of sequestration." Fill out that form, a dismissive clerk told Hall, and constables could seize his car until the matter was settled.  

It hasn't happened. Even though Debra Jones, a smart, gentle soul who took pity on her former neighbor, helped him fill out the form.

Last Friday, Jones and Hall had come to court for the third week in a row. Outside, Hall's wife, son, daughter-in-law, and two small children sat crammed into an un-airconditioned 1991 Ford Escort, waiting for Hall to find justice. Inside, the court clerks were surly and unhelpful--the judge couldn't be bothered talking to Hall and his friend at all. The court clerks brusquely waved Hall and Jones away, telling them there were technical problems with the way they had filled out the form.

Actually, it was clear that the clerks didn't understand the form either--an assistant DA named Henry Voegtle says the clerks have been calling him to get his advice on how to fill it out.

It was all enough to leave a senior citizen with no legs, no education, and no lawyer terribly upset and confused. "Mr. Hall doesn't want to go back to the court anymore, but I am just determined to do whatever it takes to help him," Debra Jones says. "Something is very wrong in that court. I don't know what the problem is, but I don't think it's fair how people are treated. Mr. Hall should not have to go through this."

The problems in this court go far beyond outrageous disregard for people's physical and mental health, however.

Over the past three weeks, we have documented Judge Jones' flagrant disregard for the law. His actions are now under investigation by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct and the Dallas County DA's office.

First Jones, as a favor for an acquaintance, had a woman arrested for taking pictures of a building, which is not a crime.

Then he lied under oath to grand jurors who were debating indicting him for official oppression in the matter. The angry grand jurors brought a felony perjury complaint to a second grand jury, which no-billed Jones. The judge's perjury defense was aided by a sympathetic assistant DA working at cross purposes with his own colleagues, as well as a grand juror Jones knew who vociferously defended the JP but failed to reveal her prior relationship to him.

Now the DA's office is considering resurrecting the perjury case for another grand jury, and looking into a whole new crop of allegations. Among them, as discussed here last week, is that Jones has been hearing criminal cases--mainly hot-check cases--that he shouldn't hear because the alleged incidents occurred outside his precinct. Jones says he'll continue to do it until he's "challenged." He won't turn those cases away, he says, because his aggressive handling of them has made him quite popular with area merchants.

Jones absolutely bends over backward to collect money for these merchants, instructing defendants to make restitution on the spot, setting up elaborate payment plans for them if they don't have enough money. No surprise, then, that merchants--especially big chains like Home Depot, Albertson's, and Kroger, make a beeline for Jones' court. They love the fast, courteous service and high conviction rate.

The flip side, of course, is that it is often an enormous disservice to citizens, partly because they must travel across the county to Jones' court, and partly because, when they get there, all bets are off--especially for innocent people with legitimate stories.

Last week, I wrote about a case in which there was overwhelming evidence to prove a woman's claim that someone had stolen her checks and written $624.48 worth of forged checks to a North Dallas Albertson's; the woman, after all, had proof that she was on a business trip to Florida when the checks were written. Though her bank credited her for all the money, the judge found her guilty of writing hot checks and fined her $4,500.

But there's more.
It turns out Jones has been doing incredibly off-the-wall things with state truancy laws.

In Texas, justices of the peace can prosecute the parents of kids who repeatedly skip school. Parents found guilty of this Class C misdemeanor can be ordered into counseling with their kids, fined, or sentenced to community service. Some wind up in jail if they don't pay their fines.

As in all criminal cases, the judicial system must follow certain legal procedures to ensure that it doesn't trample on people's basic legal rights. For one thing, the school district must file an affidavit--a sworn statement--with the court to initiate a truancy case. The complaint details the charge against the parent and assures the judge that the district gave the parent a formal warning that his child was breaking the state's Compulsory School Attendance Law.  

In Judge Jones' court, however, parents can be subpoenaed to court, tried, found guilty, and even sentenced without any affidavit ever being filed--without the court even formally opening a case.

One of the first people to discover this was newly minted Justice of the Peace Diana Orozco, elected last November to represent a new majority-Hispanic Oak Cliff precinct. Early in her tenure, W.E. Greiner Middle School officials invited Orozco to a meeting.

"They said, 'We want you to do what Judge Jones did for us,'" Orozco recalls the school principal and the student advisor telling her. "'We subpoenaed 500 parents here to Greiner, and the judge came out and held court here. He read them all the riot act, but he didn't fine them. We want you to do the same thing, but we want you to fine them.'"

Unlike Jones, whose knowledge of the law amounts to a couple of notebooks he was handed in a state-mandated JP course, Orozco is a bona fide lawyer who has practiced criminal law. Therefore, listening to this, all kinds of little lawyer bells began to go off in Orozco's head.

"I said, 'Let me make this clear--you file all these cases, and then you use a subpoena to get a criminal defendant to come to court?'" she asked incredulously, knowing that subpoenas are generally used only to summon witnesses to court.

"They said, 'No, no, we didn't file cases against these people--we just subpoenaed them,'" Oroczo recalls.

Now the JP was even more astounded--the school officials were telling her they hadn't even filed the affidavits.

Orozco says she just stared at them. "Well, you can't subpoena someone without an open file--so how did you get these people down here?"

Simple, they said. "The judge gave us a blank subpoena that he had signed, and we just made copies of it, filled them out, and subpoenaed everybody," she recalls them saying.

Later, Judge Jones showed up--he had been invited to the meeting, too, to impart his wisdom to Orozco about this wonderful new system for dealing with truants. (Incredibly enough, this man was actually on the DISD board for five years until 1992).

Orozco told Greiner's principal that she was not going to participate in any mass truancy hearings--period. Then she gave Jones some advice. "I very pointedly said, 'It's a good thing you didn't fine these people because, quite frankly, you didn't have the right to subpoena them in the first place because there was no open case,'" she recalls. "And he said nothing. He just looked at me."

And then he promptly ignored her advice.
Four months later, Jones held his fourth mass-truancy hearing at Pinkston High School in West Dallas. This time he actually fined parents--on the spot. Without affidavits. Without open cases.

Al Miranda, a 22-year DISD veteran who was a high school principal until last August, when he became the district's point man on truancy, recalls his shock. Miranda is the one who files the affidavits on behalf of the school district. Sitting in the Pinkston cafeteria that March evening, Miranda watched a judge try and fine parents on whom Miranda had never filed affidavits. In effect, people were being tried and sentenced without being charged.

"I told the judge that this was not a good idea--that we really needed to do these by the book, as individual cases," Miranda says. "My recommendation to him was that we handle all these cases under an affidavit--and not fine any of these people."

Jones did not collect any money that night. But by the end of the evening, he had prosecuted some 47 improper cases--some on kids who had as many as 30 or 40 unexcused absences.

The solution? Miranda took the computerized attendance sheets for the 47 students whose parents had just been convicted, and over the next few weeks, he created the affidavits needed to open real files.

"I just felt it was important to try and clean up the mess--to do it right," Miranda says. "So I filled out all the affidavits and brought them to Jones' court.

"But what I couldn't fix--and what bothers me the most about all this--is all the parents and kids who didn't show up at these meetings," he said, referring to about 60 students with chronic absentee problems. "Those are the worst offenders, but the court never did anything to follow up with them--never filed cases on them or tried to find them. The ball just got dropped on all those kids, which really isn't fair when we're hammering kids at other schools."  

Today, Jones is holding real hearings--based on real criminal complaints--on some of those parents he fined back in March.

I wondered how the judge would handle the delicate problem of hauling parents to court in March--but not opening a bona fide criminal file on them until April. Would the files reflect Jones' bizarre and illegal missteps?

That's why I went to Jones' court last Friday--to look at some of the truancy files, none of which Jones would release. But the computer index for all the JP courts countywide, which anyone can access, suggests there is a problem--possibly a criminal one, according to the DA's office, which is investigating the matter.

The index indicates that Jones' clerks may have done some backdating on the Pinkston cases. While the master index shows that four cases selected at random are logged automatically by the computer system as having been entered on April 22, 1995, the detailed information that Jones' clerks manually placed on the computer shows a different date for opening the cases: November 29, 1994.

April 22, 1995 is the real date the cases were opened, after receipt of the affidavits, says a former clerk of Jones who was subpoenaed to testify before the second grand jury; the clerk says Jones wanted an earlier, fictitious file date on the new cases to cover up his previous improper procedures. The staffer's story is backed up by other clerks, who say the judge ordered three clerks into work on April 22, a Saturday, to create the backdated files because Al Miranda had just filed affidavits for them and questions were arising about what Jones had done at Pinkston.

The computer also shows active truancy cases on parents against whom Miranda says he's never filed affidavits. "You got me," he says, scratching his head last week as we pored over his files. "I didn't file affidavits on these people."

In a four-hour interview last month--before my first column on his conduct appeared--Jones pronounced this entire mess a great success story. He proudly ticked off the names of four different schools where he's done this over the past two years: James Madison High School, Julia Frazier Elementary School, Pinkston, and Greiner.

Jones told me he doesn't fine people at these hearings. "We just offer the parents counseling if they want to take advantage of that," he said.

But the DA's office has the names of more than 100 witnesses from the hearing at Pinkston who know differently. (I'm also told there's a tape of the entire proceeding at Pinkston that Channel 8 filmed, though the station has never aired the story.)

Jones talked freely about giving school principals blank subpoenas. He said two other high schools--Kimball and South Oak Cliff--are waiting for him to hold hearings at their schools. "It's just a matter of scheduling," Jones said breezily.

Never mind that a number of these schools are not in his precinct, and besides, according to Sect. 27.051 of the Texas Government Code, JPs can only hold court in the place designated for them by the commissioners court--and that means their court, not a school cafeteria.

Jones chalks up his out-of-courtroom wanderings to the failures of other JPs, who, he says, don't particularly like dealing with truancy cases. "What I attempt to do is deal with the schools in the precinct," says Jones. "But because of the reluctance of other judges to get involved, the schools outside of this precinct call upon us."

He did not return phone to his office calls seeking comment on the allegedly backdated truancy files and the issue of holding court outside his courtroom. Reached at home Monday night, Jones refused to discuss anything and hung up the phone.

It is no wonder this aspect of the JP Jones judicial circus has drawn the attention of the DA's office. This judge is handing out blank subpoenas to civilians to use at their discretion; commanding people to appear at a place other than the judge's court; summoning them without affidavits or case files; and sentencing citizens who haven't been formally accused of a crime.

"You're giving out blank subpoenas, going out of your precinct, holding hearings, and jerking people around on provisions that are probably not valid," says assistant DA Mike Gillett. "It's quite a bit to look at."

Unfortunately, there aren't many ways to stop it. Judge Jones has three years left in his four-year term, and the Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct is a weak agency that rarely sanctions; when it does, it usually takes years to act.

Clearly the only answer is the DA's office, which knows it is sitting on a political hot potato, since Jones has already been yelling "racism" at the top of his lungs, complaining about how a white Republican DA is going after a black Democratic judge.  

In truth, this isn't about race at all. It's about an incompetent, abusive judge who happens to be black. In fact, many of his victims are minorities. Seeking to befriend powerful businesses and individuals, irresponsibly pursuing his wild, self-aggrandizing, seat-of-the-pants notion of justice, Jones is victimizing black and Hispanic citizens who lack the resources to fight back.

These are the residents of Dallas no one seems to care much about. Ironically, they are the same citizens who elected Thomas Jones to do them justice.

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