Courthouse coup

Late one day last week, after presiding over a full day of misdemeanors, Dallas County Criminal Court at Law Judge Dan L. Wyde hied himself from the Frank Crowley Criminal Courts Building to a run-down area of strip shopping centers, Korean grocers, and small warehouses near the intersection of Royal Lane and Interstate 35.

Around 5:30 p.m. on November 19, he pulled into the parking lot of the county road and bridge office that for more than two decades has served as Dallas County Commissioner Jim Jackson's seat of power. Wyde's mission was urgent, or so he had told the commissioner that afternoon in begging for an audience. Indeed, Wyde's purpose was nothing less than to save his own political hide.

Extracting himself from his late-model coupe, Wyde hurried into the 10-room, single-story flagstone- and siding-covered building where Jackson, the man who would be king of Dallas County government, waited.

Since being sworn in 23 years ago this month, Jackson, a 58-year-old Republican warlord, has earned nationwide notice for promoting pet right-wing causes, like prohibiting AIDS programs that feature condom and needle distribution. But while few have noticed it, over the years Jackson's favorite target of all (next to taxes, naturally) has been the judicial branch of government, which Jackson has long suspected of harboring anti-democratic tendencies. In recent months he has turned up the heat on the county's judges, gathering information on their work habits, he says, in order to promote a more efficient judiciary.

His detractors see a more sinister motive. They say Jackson wants nothing less than to control Dallas County's court system. And indeed, through a combination of bluff, bluster, and savvy political maneuvering, Jackson has become the man whose blessing virtually everyone at the county seeks and whose enmity many fear. So it was not surprising that Wyde, at 34 the newest criminal courts judge on the bench in Dallas County, sought out Jackson when Wyde found himself, once again, in trouble.

Unfortunately, since his appointment last May, his young honor has endured a humiliating series of press revelations. First came the disclosure that less than two months before Jackson and the other four members of the commissioners court tapped Wyde for the bench, the Dallas County District Attorney's Office had fired him for alleged unethical behavior. Depending upon whose version you believe, Wyde either submitted a false affidavit, disobeyed superiors in attempting to hold a witness in contempt, or both.

That news was followed by the perjury case against Nina Shahravan. Both defense and prosecutors claimed that Wyde had said he would not consider probation for Shahravan since she had "inconvenienced influential people," namely Cowboys Erik Williams and Michael Irvin, whom she falsely accused of rape. Wyde denied making the statement, but both sides claim he lied to avoid removal from the case.

Then came the revelation late last month that Ken Mayfield, a commissioner instrumental in Wyde's appointment, continues to practice law in Wyde's court.

Yet in a world where the general public knows little and cares less about the judges it elects, none of this might have mattered but for one complication: Wyde had drawn two opponents in the upcoming March Republican primary. The district attorney's office yielded the most serious challenger, Nick Cariotis, a popular assistant district attorney who runs the office's hot check division. And Cariotis was certain to raise the topinc of Wyde's screw-ups during the upcoming race.

The prospect of an opponent may explain, but hardly excuses, the monumentally stupid mistake Wyde made late last month, when--in the midst of a hearing, on the record--he asked a defendant's lawyer whether he was supporting Cariotis. Given the level of schadenfreude in the halls of the criminal courthouse these days, the story was bound to out. And indeed, on November 17, one of Wyde's fellow misdemeanor judges, Vickers Cunningham, reported Wyde to the State Commission on Judicial Conduct--and worse still, to The Dallas Morning News.

By the middle of last week, things looked so bleak for Wyde that his name had inspired a new usage around the courthouse, as a synonym for "self-inflicted wound." "I almost danwyded myself in court today," announced one wag during a judicial fundraiser.

Yet as of the morning of November 19, Wyde still had one important factor going for him: Jackson. Indeed, it was Jackson who, last May, had provided the critical swing vote catapulting the unemployed Wyde to the bench ahead of at least two more-qualified candidates. (Jackson, who says he believes in keeping his word, had promised to support Wyde if he came up with two other votes. To Jackson's surprise, he says, Wyde not only came up with the support of Commissioner Mayfield, but nabbed the vote of ever-unpredictable Commissioner John Wiley Price.)

During a three-hour interview with the Dallas Observer the morning of Wyde's audience, Jackson had suggested that everyone from a vengeful district attorney's office to a cliquish criminal defense bar to a hacked-off set of elitist judges had the long knives out for his protege. While he was clearly concerned that the hapless Wyde couldn't seem to avoid impaling himself, Jackson still suspected that Wyde was being targeted unfairly. "I wish he'd just keep his mouth shut," Jackson had lamented.

But by mid-afternoon, Jackson had reversed course. The change was prompted by a fax Jackson received from Bill Simpson, a Republican activist, political consultant, and Jackson political ally. Simpson's communique was a simple, one-page memo signed by Wyde and 11 other county criminal court judges in response to an open records request from the Observer seeking the judges' parking records at the courthouse. The one-sentence memo declares that the records are not public documents, but rather "records of the judiciary" that can be withheld from public scrutiny under a controversial recent opinion of the Texas Supreme Court.

Simpson might as well have pinned a toreador's glittering jacket and skin-tight pants on Wyde and waved a red cape before Jackson.

"There are some members of the judiciary who have always been adamant about being a separate unit of government, unaccountable to the people or the other branches," Jackson had said that very morning. "They may not be responsible to me as a commissioner, but they're all responsible to the taxpayers, and to me as a voter."

A large man with bifocals, fleshy features, a mouth curved into a frown, and thinning dark hair combed over his head with the aid of something wet, Jackson can at first appear stuffy and slightly disapproving, like an aging accountant or a small-town bank president. But when he opens his mouth, the stern facade melts away. Without ever actually smiling, Jackson manages to be charming, disarming, mirthful, and combative at the same time. He accomplishes this feat mostly through the expressive quality of his dancing pale-blue eyes and the lilt of his surprisingly soft, melodic voice.

"If you say any judiciary has no responsibility to answer to the public, that's an oligarchy, not a democracy," Jackson continued. "If you remove the judiciary from the oversight of the people, it becomes a superior office. Any office that does not derive its power directly from the people will become dominant."

Jackson is on a one-man mission to keep the black robes in their proper place. Any sign of uppityness, such as withholding the judges' parking records from press and public scrutiny, is guaranteed to incur Jackson's wrath. And around the courthouses it is taken as an article of faith that he or she who incurs the wrath of Jackson risks terrible retributions, up to and including the unleashing of much-feared political pit bulls Bill Simpson and Kay Copeland, Jackson's former administrative assistant who, just last month, left the city's employ to join Simpson in the political consulting business.

Given the possible penalties, Dan Wyde got off light. His penance for signing the November 6 order was relatively mild: a letter saying Commissioner Jackson was withdrawing his support. Nor was Wyde the only county court judge who received such a letter. Tom Fuller and Marshall Gandy, both county court judges fending off Republican primary challengers, received similar letters. Wyde was simply the most desperate. Which prompted his pilgrimage to the Jackson political compound.

"I gave him a choice," explains Jackson two days later. "He could either write a letter to the DA's office, saying he was releasing his parking records, or I was withdrawing my support." The ultimatum wasn't as bad as it might have been. Jackson didn't, for example, go so far as to throw his support to Cariotis. Nor is he likely to, since Jackson also is involved in a longstanding feud with the district attorney's office over revenues from the hot check division, which Jackson accuses the district attorney's office of using "like a slush fund."

Gandy and Fuller may not be so lucky.

The first clues to the trouble brewing at the county's courthouses come from a glut of malicious tipping. Assistant district attorneys who usually wouldn't volunteer the names of their pet beagles suddenly ring up with scuttlebutt on judges. Judges and sheriffs' department employees alike offer up the dope on county commissioners, and the commissioners slip judges' parking records to reporters. And Simpson, in a dirt-dishing league of his own, forgives the Observer its recent unflattering portrait of him ["Mr. Nobody," August 14] long enough to proffer a guest list from high-profile criminal defense attorney Doug Mulder's Texas Stadium sky box, as well as a tidbit about a certain judge supposedly conducting virtual affairs on the Internet.

By the time judges start tattling on each other to journalists, it's pretty clear that either the stars are in some sort of spectacular misalignment or civil war has broken out in Dallas County's Republican-controlled courthouses. And it's also apparent that Jimmy Lee Jackson, longtime county commissioner from the city's northwest quadrant, is at the center of just about every skirmish.

"It's really disturbing that everyone seems to be so at odds," says Pat McDowell, a retired criminal district judge who serves as administrative head of the 34-county judicial region that includes Dallas. McDowell, who is one of the primary combatants, is the first to say that things have gotten out of hand. "It's not good for the judges to be warring with the commissioners, or with themselves. It's just not good government."

I just hope it stays within bounds," frets Bob Driegert, chairman of the Dallas County Republican Party. Though Driegert believes that tensions between Dallas County's "very frugal, cost-conscious" commissioners and the county's judiciary are to some degree "inevitable," he also believes that hostilities have escalated dangerously. "I'm not taking the position that this level of conflict is healthy," he says.

Jackson, meanwhile, is enjoying all the hand-wringing. The veteran commissioner from Precinct 1 in northwest Dallas is legendary for loosing invective on Democrats and others with whom he disagrees. And it is largely through the force of that invective--through sheer intimidation, delivered in a prodigious flow of letters and threats and phone calls--that he manages to exert an astonishing degree of control over the county's courthouses. Though he does control a spoils system of sorts, primarily in the form of appointing county boards as well as the right to fill the occasional empty county court bench, he shares even those privileges with three other commissioners and County Judge Lee Jackson, some of whom have their own very independent minds. Truth be told, Jackson doesn't even "control" his own perceived political hatchetpersons, Kay Copeland and Bill Simpson.

Yet, through sheer bluff and an impressive array of bullying tactics, Jackson has managed to install himself as the Republican Party's right-wing mercy killer. In Jackson's own eyes, he's doing the party a service, targeting the GOP's weak sheep while making local government responsive to the will of the people. Even if that is mostly self-serving blarney, it's got the local judiciary quivering like so many scared rabbits.

"I'm not prepared to support every Republican, regardless of their record or their thoughts," says Jackson, sipping coffee at the large round table that dominates his corner office at the county road and bridge building. Beside the table is a 8-foot-high American flag; nearby, behind his utterly conventional brown desk, is an artist's rendering of Ronald Reagan circa 1980.

Although the props seem to fit his reputation as a member of the flag-waving Christian right, his personal political philosophies are not so easy to peg. There's Jackson's Steve Forbes, taxes-before-all-else side, which worries about tax rates and triple-A bond ratings. There's the Christie Todd Whitman content-neutral, cut-the-cost-of-car-insurance pandering to middle-class constituents. But above all else, there's a real strain of William Jennings Bryan populist rabble-rouser.

"One of the things I've told the judges is that 25 years ago, when I was part of the Republican movement to take over county government, we promised some things, including openness in government," Jackson says. "And the thing that I fear most is us becoming them.

"In part, that's the nature of power," he continues. "And that's why I don't want to be the party chairman. I don't want to defend the status quo. I want to reform the Republican Party and make it more idealistic. Unless we're the watchdogs, the other party will be the watchdogs."

As his comments suggest, Jackson got his start as a storm-the-walls outsider, a good-government reform advocate. And even though he's been around for long enough to see the political landscape change, he's never really relinquished that role. He got his start in the late '50s and early '60s, when Republicans in Dallas County were scarce. "I first met Jim Jackson 30 years ago," recalls Copeland, a longtime Jackson friend and political ally.

"I got home from the grocery store, and he was waiting on my porch. He was the Republican Party head, and he had me down as the precinct chairman, and he wanted me to give him the records. I didn't have them, but I went with him to get them from the guy I'd given them to.

"We all grew up in the Republican party with real idealistic goals--open government and less government. Some of us still believe in that."

In 1974, Jackson ran his first campaign for commissioner on the promise that, if elected, he would make a judge resign. "His name was Judge Guthrie," Jackson recalls. "He was a county court judge in 1974, but he was really living in Colorado. The then-party chairman was depositing his check every two weeks."

Jackson won. The judge resigned.
He's continued to keep an eye on the local judiciary ever since. In the mid-'80s, Jackson grew angry when a number of judges gave their court reporters 5 percent raises, which Jackson felt were excessive. Never loath to say what he thinks, Jackson saw, and still sees, court reporters as overpaid sacred cows. "I think it's at least humorous, if not pathetic, that we're still using court reporters and have no incentive to use modern technology and be more efficient," Jackson complains. "Only in government do you protect jobs against change."

So Jackson and the other commissioners simply refused to fund the raises. The move sparked a sensational judge-commissioner brawl, the high point of which came when a courthouse cabal tried to indict the commissioners for "official oppression." In 1988 the Texas Supreme Court finally imposed a cease-fire by ruling that the commissioner's court had no discretion to withhold payment. Though the commissioners complied, the wounds never really healed.

Even then, it was largely a GOP family feud. Thus tensions eased little during the '80s, when the Republicans acquired their current lock on Dallas County elections. The courthouse was the first place the Democrats lost control. Since 1988, Dallas voters have elected exactly three Democrats to the county's trial courts. The last Democrat elected to a Dallas county trial court was John Creuzot in 1992; he subsequently switched parties. Impressively, this domination continued even during Gov. Ann Richards' turn in the statehouse. While Richards appointed Democrats to fill empty benches during her tenure (between elections, the governor fills empty district courts, while county commissioners fill vacant county courts), straight Republican voting picked them off at every election.

The commissioners court--which is of course not a "court" at all, but the management and budgetary arm of county government--was slower to change composition. But the November 1994 elections that gave the Republicans dominance in Congress also changed the commissioners court, sweeping in Ken Mayfield and Mike Cantrell, both of whom ran as ultra-right-wing conservatives.

With the election of Mayfield and Cantrell, Jackson had the votes to implement his agenda. Within six months of the November '94 elections, the commissioners made national news by voting to scotch the distribution of condoms, needle sterilization kits, and explicit literature about sexually transmitted diseases. In 1995, the commissioners passed a resolution urging Congress to adopt a school-prayer amendment.

Jackson wasted no time testing his newfound political muscle, embarking on a quixotic quest to oust Ron Anderson, president and chief executive officer of Parkland Hospital. And the way he attempted it was instructive. "I'm just not sure he is doing as good a job in financial management as he is in health-care management," Jackson told the Observer in 1995. But others disagreed, pointing out that Anderson had actually improved the hospital's finances, and that Parkland was actually less of a drain on taxpayer money than it had been when Anderson took over.

Cantrell, who has turned out to be more independent than anticipated, concluded that Anderson was doing a "fantastic job" in the financial department, and Jackson's attempted ouster failed. Today, Jackson readily admits he used financial oversight as a fig leaf to attack Anderson, whose liberal views and Democratic party affiliations irked Jackson. "Oh, I think that's absolutely true," Jackson concedes. To some degree, he admits, he's probably doing the same thing with the courts.

In 1996, Jackson ordered the county budget office to start compiling courthouse statistics. The result is a series of "Dallas County Management Reports" containing 32 double-sided pages of numbers and graphs analyzing the workload of individual judges--everything from their court operating expenses to the number of cases they disposed of to the number of days they used visiting judges to fill in for them.

After viewing the information, the commissioners, led by Jackson, initiated what one letter euphemistically terms "an ongoing dialogue...[with] the Dallas County judges over the use of visiting judges." Jackson was keenly interested in visiting judges, and not just because he clearly suspected that the county courthouses harbored a few judicial slackers. (In one letter to "All Dallas County Judges," Jackson somewhat disingenuously claims that he has no specific "reason to believe there are...judges who put forth less than honorable efforts, although I've heard rumors.")

Indeed, Jackson's primary beef seems to have been over who was getting the visiting judge jobs. As administrative head of the judicial region, McDowell controls the use of visiting judges, who are former, retired, or even regular judges tapped to fill in temporarily for another judge when he or she is sick, on vacation, or simply overwhelmed by caseloads. The state Legislature fixes the rules determining eligibility to serve in these lucrative slots, which are themselves a powerful form of political patronage. In many counties, including Dallas, visiting judges can sit on "temporary" courts, such as special drug courts, for years. And while the state picks up most of the costs for visiting judges, the county does provide supplements to their salaries and also picks up 100 percent of the costs of any additional personnel, such as court reporters and bailiffs.

In a letter to McDowell, Jackson summed his objections. "I have long expressed my personal displeasure with you appointing defeated judges, especially those who never got re-elected once," Jackson wrote. "Those of us who believe in an elected judiciary rightfully ask if a judge is defeated...why should he become an appointed full-time judge in Dallas County?"

Jackson insists the issue wasn't simply whether defeated Democrats were sneaking in the back door. "Judge Stephens is one of the ones I'm maddest about," Jackson fumes. A Republican, Gary Stephens was defeated by challenger Mark Tolle in the 1986 Republican primary. But during the '80s, while he still sat on the district court bench, Stephens presided over the grand jury that tried to indict the commissioners. He now sits semi-permanently as a visiting judge hearing child indecency cases.

But McDowell, no stranger to the art of judge-commissioner infighting, was deeply suspicious of Jackson's motives. A tall, cagey, silver-haired Republican with a gift for gab and a passion for, in his words, "pranking" with Commissioner Jackson, McDowell is fiercely protective of the sitting Dallas County judges. And he viewed Jackson's demands for financial information with alarm. "I really hate to see Republican elected officials picking each other off," explains McDowell.

McDowell sent Jackson a reply defending the use of visiting judges on fiscal grounds, pointing out that in most cases, virtually all of a visiting judge's salary is paid by the state, not the county. McDowell also disclaimed any real control over patronage, since in most cases the judges themselves chose who sat in their absence. And he resisted turning the visiting-judge information over.

"There is no doubt that there are those who want to make this a political issue," McDowell wrote the judges. "In time I may release a list showing which judges were assigned to particular courts, but I am not even sure I will do that given the current atmosphere."

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.

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."

"Some lawyers are mad at Gandy because he puts too heavy a bond on defendants," says Copeland. "And I think that's great."

Of course, whether the jockeying and infighting at the courthouse is bad or good is largely a question of whether you believe in elected judges. Texas has a nationally recognized penchant for electing buffoons and political hacks to the bench. Just two weeks ago, during an address at the Jewish Community Center Book Fair, famed Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz was asked whether, given the generally low education level of jurors and their corresponding propensity to be hoodwinked, it was time to do away with juries. Taking note of his venue, Dershowitz drily noted that the best argument for the jury system was the quality of state court judges, especially those in Texas.

Yet this targeting can only worsen an already weak-sister judiciary. Forget standing up to "factions"--this bunch can't decide whether to walk down the hall without holding their fingers to the wind, and their chief concern is how to shield their work habits from scrutiny. Meet the people charged with protecting your life, liberty, and property.

Which, in the end, is the real reason that Jim Jackson may control Dallas County's courthouses.


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