Nothing Changes at Municipal Courts Without Approval from the Ticketmasters

The secret story behind the story of the Dallas municipal judge fracas is that judges in the city courts don't run their own courts anyway. Ticket lawyers do.

I have been talking about this to lawyers familiar with the municipal courts -- lawyers who work there sometimes, not all the time. They know these courts, but they don't depend on them for a living. They won't be quoted, however, because then they'd never win another case in municipal court ever. They tell me that half a dozen traffic lawyers have the ability to shut down the entire court system at any given time. Everybody knows that. So those lawyers run the show.

See also: - City Council's Municipal Court "Reform" Smells a Lot Like Bad Patronage

On the surface, the visible fight tomorrow on the City Council will be over the strange obsession of former Municipal Judge Vonciel Hill, now a council member, who is determined by any means possible to get three judges back on the bench after they were bounced by a yearlong court reform review committee did its work.

Two of those judges, Timoteo Gonzalez and Cheryl D. Williams, are suing the city for their jobs. They are represented in that suit by lawyer Randall Scott, who happens also to be one of the biggest ticket lawyer kings.

In spite of the judges being bounced and in spite of their suit against the city, Hill, backed by Mayor Mike Rawlings, wants the council to OK a special appropriations act tomorrow authorizing expenditures to cover their six-figure salaries and naming them in the act as specific individuals who must be hired back and must be paid the money.

Council member Angela Hunt, who was a co-chair of the reform committee, has written to the city attorney asking what the deal's going to be if Williams and Gonzalez do get their benches back.

"If the City Council votes to approve the budget with this amendment next week," Hunt asks in her letter, "will the three reinstated judges be required to recuse themselves from cases in which their attorney, Randall Scott, is representing defendants in their courtroom?"

The Dallas Morning News has been treating this as a simple conflict of interest question, which, on the surface, it is.

The argument may have a certain half-life. Scott's a lawyer. He has a right to represent people. It's a little hard to see how he's anything naughty here.

But forget Scott. Think about the larger political and public policy picture. Let me ask you a question. Why are the city courts so stubbornly screwed up? It's been the Street of Broken Dreams down there forever.

City Council member Dwaine Caraway says in today's News story that it's all about needing better computers and getting the cops to show up for their cases. Oh, bullshit.

The courts have been screwed up through X-many regimes and X-many efforts to straighten them out, because it serves the purposes of certain people for the courts to be screwed up. The ticket kings, in particular, have a permanent running deal with the judges. And maybe with the cops. Who knows?

Let's go back to the idea that the ticket kings run the courts. How? My lawyer sources tell me that the kings have it in their power to shut the courts down at any given moment simply by setting every case they have for trial.

The ratio of cases to courts would be overwhelming -- like trying to feed a dump truck full of rocks through a kitchen blender. The whole thing would melt. And everybody knows it.

On a day-to-day basis, nobody deals in that kind of ultimatum. These are all lawyers who pass each other every day in the corridor and have a certain amount of familiarity and respect for each other, so things are handled in a more businesslike genial fashion. Everybody knows that everybody needs to be reasonable.

Long before anybody goes to court, the ticketmasters wind up with a certain ratio of dismissals, one way or the other. Who knows how? I don't know how. And if a case does go to court, things get even more strange.

Years ago I was in Vonciel Hill's court one day -- it was jammed wall-to-wall with defendants -- and after everybody sat there for an hour or so a clerk walked to the front of the room and announced that every single case in the courtroom was to be dismissed because not a single cop in a single case was going to show up.

What the hell? How does that happen? A couple hundred cases, and by coincidence not a single cop on any one of them shows up? Wow. How lucky was that for the defendants whose lawyers knew to schedule their cases for that day? It was like a magic show!

If you're an outsider sitting there -- a regular citizen -- the courts seem to work by a strange invisible logic. But here's the key: If you hire the right lawyer, that strange invisible logic can work for you. If not, maybe not.

Look. There is a conclusion I find inescapable, as I watch Hill and the mayor go through these otherwise incomprehensible contortions to preserve the jobs of two full-time judges and a part-timer. It's not about those judges, entirely. It's about the system.

The inner system. The secret system. The one you and I aren't supposed to see. Built of a commerce between the ticketmasters and the judges, it's an informal but all-powerful mechanism that decides who rules and who's a fool. It can work for us, if we pay, or against us, if we do not.

You should take a gander, if you have time, at Hunt's web page explaining the review and reform process. It clearly was an effort to sweep some of the dirt off the floor of the court system. If you look at how they did it, it's obvious the committee was trying to infuse some kind of logic and simple rule of law back into this Dickensian Old Bailey rat's nest of a system.

The mayor told me yesterday that he views his support of Hill on this as a simple and reasonable attempt to effect a compromise between warring elements of the council -- elements that happen to be divided by race and ethnicity. I am sure that he is sincere in that idea. Trying to preserve racial peace is no trivial goal.

But I don't believe for a minute that Hill is sincere in construing this as some kind of civil rights issue. This is all about the down and dirty -- about the way those courts really operate, not the way the citizens think they're supposed to run.

Hill knows. She's from the inside. For her, this is no compromise. I admit I don't know exactly how this particular wrinkle works, but my sniffer tells me it's about preserving the game -- the smart insider game.

She wants the council to OK a special appropriations act creating two new permanent judgeships and naming the individuals who have to be given those judgeships. It has a whiff of something, does it not, and, gosh, might we even recognize that fragrance? Oh, yes. It's that old standby, Eau de Municipal Courts.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze

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