The Christmas Coronation

Technically, Dallas County residents will be able to cast a vote in two local judicial races--one for the 68th civil district bench and the second for County Court at Law No. 5--in November. Not that it matters; the winners already have been selected.

"If you have a case in court, you will love these judges as your judge," says state District Judge Gary Hall.

He should know. After all, it was Hall--along with Dallas County Commissioner Mike Cantrell and a few of his Republican friends--who has effectively determined the outcome of the two races. The winners are: County Court at Law No. 5 Judge Charles Stokes, who will be replacing Hall on the 68th bench, and Mark Greenberg, a Dallas County civil court master who will be assuming Stokes' bench. It will be Greenberg's first elected office. Hall, meanwhile, is retiring.

For the record, the parties involved stress that what they did was perfectly legal. It was even "prudent," Cantrell says. "Beautiful," according to Hall. "It came off pretty much without a hitch," Stokes says. And it all happened over the holidays. Call it the Christmas coronation.

In Dallas County, it is not unusual for incumbents to deploy various procedural tactics, such as waiting until the last possible moment to file for election, in order to scare off potential opponents. But this silent coup was orchestrated so well even some Democrats are whistling in admiration.

"I called one of the parties involved and had to congratulate him on a smooth move," says Dallas attorney Ken Molberg, who has been actively recruiting Democratic judicial candidates to run in the November elections.

Molberg is one of many courthouse regulars who will say that Hall, Stokes and Greenberg are respected among their peers, Democrats and Republicans alike. In fact, Hall and Stokes are so agreeable that the Democrats chose not to run a candidate against them this year. That is especially apparent with Stokes: Of the five county courts at law judges, Stokes is the only one who did not draw a Democratic opponent. (Greenberg's position is appointed.)

Of course, the Democrats did not run anyone against Hall or Stokes because they assumed both men were running for re-election.

"If we had known this was coming up, it's highly likely we would have some candidates this fall," says Dallas County Democratic Party Chairman Bill Howell. "This is saying to the voters, 'We know what's best for you, and we're not going to give you a choice.'"

It's a wonder how they were fooled.

On paper, the deception began on Christmas Eve. It was a Monday, and despite the slow holiday traffic, Republican Party headquarters was open for business. That morning Hall notified the party that he was running for re-election, a formality he completed by submitting an application to have his name placed on the Republican ballot for the March 2002 primary.

Hall, a 20-year veteran of the bench, is well aware that courthouse regulars have for years been speculating about when he might retire. Hall ended that talk this election cycle as soon as he filed his application, along with more than 830 signatures he had gathered to ensure his ability to put his name on the ballot.

"I was fully prepared to run for another term," Hall says.

By then, however, Hall says Commissioner Cantrell had already approached him with an offer: If Cantrell could gather enough signatures to put Stokes and Greenberg on the ballot before the January 2 filing deadline, would he retire?

"I said sure," Hall says, adding that he only did it on the condition that Stokes agree to let Hall's current employees keep their jobs. "Charles and I are friends."

Of course, Stokes simply could have announced his candidacy and run out in the open, but he didn't want to do that because he had more than a year left on his term, and as a result, election rules would have required him to vacate his current bench had he announced his candidacy before January 1. That's why Stokes needed Cantrell to gather signatures and raise money on his behalf, which he did by creating a "specific-purpose committee."

"I was very careful not to trigger that," Stokes says. "I'm not sure I would have had [an opponent] anyway, but why risk it?"

The big challenge was how to get those signatures--a minimum of 250 per candidate--without letting the tightly knit legal community know that Hall's seat, and Stokes' seat respectively, were in fact open. If that happened before the January 2 filing deadline, they might attract Democratic opponents in the general election and possibly Republican opponents in the primary.

As it turned out, all Cantrell had to do was wait a little. On Friday, December 28, at the end of the holiday week, Cantrell armed three dozen foot soldiers with two sets of petitions, one for Stokes and one for Greenberg, and instructed them to fan out among their friends and neighbors.

"I just really sat back and watched and kind of bit my nails while all this stuff was going on," Stokes says.

By New Year's Eve, just three days later, Cantrell's team had collected some 600 signatures for each candidate. The plot worked: Those who knew about it apparently didn't say much, and when the filing deadline arrived, no opponents from either party emerged. Stokes recalls that the receptionists' eyes grew wide when he walked into party headquarters January 2 and filed his paperwork to withdraw from his current seat and have his name placed on the ballot for Hall's seat.

"I didn't even look at the petitions. I hadn't even seen 'em until I walked in at 4:15 and they handed it to me," Stokes says. "I was taking a lot on faith that it was done properly."

Greenberg, whose respective paperwork was also properly filed at the last moment, waited in similar suspense. "I was confident that it was going to happen in the last few days of December," he says. "I didn't know for sure until we actually did it."

When asked why he undertook the effort, Cantrell gives a simple answer.

"I got involved because Charles Stokes and I have been friends for a long time. This was an opportunity for him to move up, so I was going to do everything that I could possibly do to help him do that," Cantrell says. "This has happened numerous times before and I haven't seen anybody complaining. Everybody seems to be extremely pleased with the way it turned out."

Cantrell disputes rumors that he intentionally kept the Republican Party in the dark about his plan, but both Bob Driegert, the party's outgoing chairman, and his replacement, incoming chairman Nate Crain, say they were unaware of what was happening until after it happened. "Certainly the party didn't know," Crain says.

Even Hall confirms the whole thing was designed to be secret.

"Once you announce," Hall says, "you're gonna have two people running for this office, one from the Democratic Party and one from the Republican Party, each spending $300,000 apiece, and then [you] end up with an unknown quantity."

Both Hall and Cantrell agree that the legal community might be upset with the way things turned out if Stokes and Greenberg weren't so well-respected. Last year, they note, Stokes and Greenberg received the highest approval ratings in the Dallas Bar Association's annual judicial poll.

And what if they weren't so well-respected?

"Then it would be really bad, wouldn't it?" Hall says. "But what we did was something beautiful that serves Dallas County."