City Staff's Complaint Against Judges: They're Too Damned Fair

Every time City Hall sets about reforming its own court system through the judicial appointments process, I see that same old bad penny coming around again. They want municipal court judges who will do what a bunch of 23-year-old city prosecutors tell them to do.

Been there myself. Let me come back to that.

Meanwhile, City Hall staff has been complaining again to the City Council that city judges are too soft on defendants.

The staff wants certain judges booted from the bench. This is an old-old song. Two years ago the staff tried to get the council to go along with them on an effort to root out judges they didn't like by suggesting maybe the council-members themselves should have a greater role in picking judges -- a system that would have been on a par with giving the job to every fourth person who walks out of the Greyhound bus station.

The staff argument is that municipal judges rule against city prosecutors too much. On the one hand, that's a tough call for somebody like me who's looking in from outside without a law degree or any experience in the courts. Correction: without much experience.

But I do have two eyeballs and a memory. I do recall a story we did at the Observer some 13 years ago about the Topletz family who own a lot of low-end rental property in southern Dallas. City staff were all up in arms because the Topletzes kept beating the city's code enforcement tickets in court. The city even ginned up some kind of criminal investigation of one of its own prosecutors who had been dismissing the tickets before the tickets even got to court.

But guess why that was happening. The tickets were no good. Our story at the time wrote it off as incompetence on the part of the city staffers who were writing the tickets. I think there was a darker side to that story: The Topletzes beat all those tickets because they were obeying the law, and the campaign of legal hectoring that produced the tickets was a political vendetta with not insignificant anti-Semitic overtones pushed by southern Dallas council members.

The prosecutor who got slimed in all of this was merely tossing out tickets she could tell were bogus, because she knew the municipal court judges were going to spot the scam and toss the tickets anyway.

Wait. That was a long time ago. I have a more recent case in mind -- one you may have heard of. Robert Groden is a Kennedy assassination author whom we just profiled in our recent people edition Groden lectures and sells books in Dealey Plaza on the weekends.

The city has ticketed Groden more than 80 times and also arrested him multiple times, all of which has been thrown out by municipal court judges. At first, the people at the city's nearby official "Sixth Floor" assassination museum denied frostily to me that they were the ones getting Groden popped.

But in Groden's ongoing federal civil rights lawsuit against the city, the city admitted that the Sixth Floor had instigated at least one of the arrests.

The Sixth Floor is a plaything and darling of the city's old power elite. Its chief purpose on earth is to make the case that the Kennedy assassination wasn't our fault.

The legal hectoring of Groden by the city has been another political prosecution -- city staff trying to use the city court system to curry favor with the old mossbacks.

My own encounter was much more prosaic and long ago. It involved a trashcan holder I had made myself and of which I was proud. Even though I had checked the ordinances ahead of time to make sure I would be legal, the city said I was not and ticketed me.

What I found was that every time I failed to just plead guilty and pay the fine, the fines and penalties doubled. I would use the term Kafkaesque, but too many people would think I was just coughing. Suffice to say: It's a system designed to beat you into paying your fine before you ever get a chance to blurt a word to a judge.

At one point after it had escalated beyond belief, I found myself before two city prosecutors downtown who appeared to be teenagers. When I said I wanted to know what kind of lesser offense they could offer me to get the thing back down to real-world levels, they told me they didn't know how to do that. It could have been a bargaining ploy, but I believe they meant it.

So I wound up in court facing a big fine and possible jail time, if you can believe that. My lawyer breezed in at the last minute -- busy-busy -- took a quick look at my ticket, and said, "Crap."

"Why crap?" I asked, thinking of my usual luck with authority.

"They put a check by 'historic overlay district' for your neighborhood, and they should have checked 'historic underlay.'"

I turned to my wife and said, "Leave now, go out to the street and purchase for me two cartons of cigarettes, which I will need so that I can make friends where I am going."

The lawyer showed the ticket to the judge. The judge scrutinized, pondered, shrugged, whispered to the two prosecutors, who shrugged and held out their palms in the traditional teenage gesture for "Sorry, Dad," and then the judge said, "Dismissed."

"I always win," the lawyer told me on the way out. "City staff can't write their own tickets."

I'm not sure I won, exactly. I had to pay the lawyer five bills. But, considering, it was better than it could have been.

So forgive me if I'm glad we have judges in the city courts who have some bone structure once in a while. And forgive me some more if I think I know why the staff doesn't like them.

God forbid we should have judges down there who actually know and respect the law, who are grown-ups with some experience and some savvy under their belts, who have the moral courage and personal integrity to bite the hand that feeds them when that hand is either stupid or flat-out corrupt.

Oh, no. Let's do what the City Attorney's Office would have us do, instead. Let's get rid of all those damned legal beagles on the bench and replace them with the kind of judges the staff wants to see. Then the only hurdle would be whether we have that many kangaroos in the zoo.