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The Courthouse war that (almost) everybody won
By Richard West |

In Dallas County government, the good ol’ boys run the show, and the city slicker lawyers have to take what they can get. Until recently, that is, when the legal community, under District Attorney Henry Wade’s direction, threatened to defeat the County’s entire bond package if they didn’t get what they wanted-a bigger, better court building than the County had proposed. The dispute set the Establishment on its ear.

VINCENT PERINI, presidentelect of the Dallas Bar Association, has a speech he is fond of giving on the lawyer’s fall from grace. “Look at many small Texas towns-Waxahachie, Granbury, Lockhart- and what do you find center stage? A magnificent courthouse,” he says. “The folks who built them knew about lawlessness and Indian raids, knew fear when a stranger was spotted on the North Forty, and they celebrated bringing law and order to the frontier with this overwhelming secular cathedral, the courthouse. And the lawyers, judges and sheriffs were the priests, to be honored as much as the structure.”

Perini continues: “Time passed; the lawyers became complacent and took their priesthood for granted. They thought citizens would always honor them with a courthouse and a hallowed place in the firmament because of their eternal collective wonder-fulness. Well, fellow barristers, those good old days have been on the respirator for a long time; our fellow citizens no longer feel obliged to kiss the ring, especially in Dallas County.”

While lawyers run other cities, in Dallas it has always been the bankers, insurance magnates, public utility chairmen, department store presidents and real estate barons who have exercised the power. Lawyers meant trouble. They counseled caution when the others just wanted to see dirt fly. So with notable exceptions such as Tom Unis, who once headed the Citizens Charter Association, lawyers were excluded from the cooperative chumminess of the actual power brokers. Until three years ago, an attorney had never been invited to join the 47-year-old Dallas Citizens Council, that select body of 250 men who help guide the city’s growth. To admit them into the inner circle was to let rats in the granaries.

CONSIDER THE STATE of the courthouse, the secular cathedral in the city, if you believe Perini is waxing a bit too melodramatic. The Dallas County Government Center (a.k.a. the “white courthouse”) and Vincent Perini began their legal careers together in 1966. About 10 minutes after the ribbon-cutting at 01’ White, the district attorney’s office seized Adult Probation’s space on the seventh floor because some of the crime stoppers didn’t have desks.

Through the years, other usurpations followed: a judge’s library was turned over to court coordinators; the lawyer’s lounge served as a courtroom. The once-proud lawyer-priests were reduced to waiting 15 minutes for an elevator, deciding the fate of clients in restrooms and hallways and having to ask where their courts were each week.

In 1977, Dallas County had a chance to improve matters, thanks to a federal court command ordering additional jail space. Voters approved a bond package that included the $57-million Lew Sterrett Justice Center complex. Then, disaster. The county had underestimated building costs by 42 percent, which left only enough money to build two of the four buildings-the jail tower and intake facility-and to begin work on foundations for a five-story office and a sixteen-story court. Last year, county officials had to assemble another bond package and persuade voters to approve completion of a criminal justice center they thought they had approved seven years before.

For almost a year preceding the April 6 bond election, the Dallas Bar Association and the Criminal Bar Association (which collectively represent 5,600 Dallas lawyers), the 14 criminal district judges and District Attorney Henry Wade’s 212-person law office battled the real power in the county wigwam-County Judge Frank Crowley and the four county commissioners-over how much money should be spent on secular cathedral enhancement.

For the bar and bench, the controversy was the first uprising-a challenge as direct and arresting as a shout on the street-against the Commissioner’s Court. Ultimately, it was a blunt lesson in reality: Crowley and the commissioners still held the checkbook. To the Court, the lawyers were the upstarts questioning its competence and basic governing philosophy. Three weeks before voting day, an unusual solution-but also a dangerous gamble-was agreed to by both sides, leaving only the criminal attorneys in opposition to the bond program.

The bond election battle not only thrust the Dallas attorneys into an unaccustomed power-broker role, it focused attention and publicity on county government, an area sometimes referred to in political science textbooks as the “dark continent of American politics.” On the local political stage, the mayor, city council members and the city manager and his minions usually hog the spotlight. They are noisy, colorful, pompous and unavoidable. County government? One thinks of drones wearing green eyeshades scratching with quills in cobwebbed offices. Its leaders are largely unknown; their duties are diffused, fragmented, decentralized, confusing. Who are they? What do they do? Is county government necessary, or is it a kind of fly in amber, antiquated and out-of-date because of laws enacted when Texans were still fighting Indians?

Judge Crowley once thought so. “In the Sixties, when I served eight years as a commissioner, I thought it should wither away and be replaced by some other governmental form. But I was wrong, because I didn’t foresee the incredible growth of suburbs, the development of central-city problems that older cities had, things like white flight that caused people to move out into the County,” Crowley says. “I don’t see metro government working a great deal better in Dade County, Montreal, Denver or San Francisco.

“We don’t need 26 different fire departments or tax collecting agencies in the County. We can do more out of a central body-like we do with tax assessing-and it need not be just in Dallas County. Denton and Collin counties could join if they wish. I’m not against the idea of a county manager, similar to Chuck Anderson’s job with the city. We have that to some degree. We’ve got a courts administrator who meets with department heads each week to make sure we’re pulling in the same direction. I know that if we did away with county government tomorrow, we’d have to replace it with something else,” Crowley says.

There are built-in features to county government that will always frustrate reform. “All the county departments are run by elected officials [criminal court and domestic judges, the D. A., the sheriff, justices of the peace, constables] and they do what they damn please. No one’s in charge overall,” Crowley says.

Dan Weiser, a longtime observer of Dallas politics, says, “City Council doesn’t get things done politically. The staff, led by the city manager, is more important than the Council members or mayor, and the staff is non-political. With the County, it’s all political as far as elected officials are concerned. Commissioners decide everything; they are the chief rulemakers and executioners. Nobody counts except the five members of the Court.”

Commissioner Nancy Judy agrees. “At Dallas City Hall, the Council is the policy body but the CEO is Chuck Anderson, the city manager. It’s the same in the DISD, but here we are both policy and CEOs, a legislative, pluralistic executive body. And we have to prepare budgets for about 101 elected officials. That makes for pure politics.”

EVEN AFTER SERVING as president of the National Association of Counties, former County Commissioner Roy Orr’s not sure about county managers or metro government or consolidation of road-and-bridge districts, but he’s sure of one thing: Former Judge Lew Sterrett wouldn’t have found himself in the mess that Judge Frank Crowley and the court found themselves in with the semi-sacred Henry Wade and the bar and bench during the recent bond battle. “01’ Lew Sterrett always told me, ’Little buddy, always get everyone in the boat before you even announce a bond election.’ Crowley’s a good man, but he ain’t no politician,” Orr says. “You don’t stir up Henry Wade in Dallas County. Even ol’ Garry Weber knew that.”

Crowley probably would disagree with Orr’s assessment. He might remind ol’ Roy that he worked for six years as Congressman Bruce Alger’s top assistant in Washington, that he was elected county commissioner in 1961 (the first county Republican official since Reconstruction days), that he ran and lost two races for Congress, that he served as the GOP county chairman during the worst years of Watergate and, that, in 1982, he beat Republican Max Wells in the primary, then defeated Democrat Bob Powers by 51 percent of the vote to become county judge.

Others might suggest that Crowley’s combative nature and his blunt, almost abrasive manner hardly lend themselves to the compromising vital to a successful politician. A recurring complaint about Crowley is that his views are calcified in prejudices and principles arrived at long ago.

“I don’t think he listens to the other side with an interest toward understanding,” says District Judge Craig Enoch, who, as chairman of the Dallas Bar Association’s Courts and Court Facilities Department during the bond fight, became an experienced Crowley observer. “If he can’t convince you, he’ll run over you, the facts be damned,” he says.

“Shame on me if that’s true,” counters Crowley, “but I would hope not. I may well let the hair rise on my neck too often, but I try to get people together. There’s something terribly futile about beating your brains out on a wall you can’t leap over. I wanted to consolidate road-and-bridge districts early last year. People convinced me the time wasn’t right, and I backed off and didn’t force it.”

“Certainly he is honest and works at the job every waking moment,” Enoch says. Even his critics admit that Crowley wants to know all details of all projects, from beginning idea to ribbon-cutting, in the manner of former President Jimmy Carter. He is hardly a wallpaper judge.

IN LATE FEBRUARY 1984, the Court began debating what to include in the bond program it planned to announce to voters in December.

By early summer, the County’s 14 criminal district judges, the bar association and the County Court were locked in hostility, battling over the size and amount of money needed for the Lew Sterrett Center’s completion. Commissioners charged that the lawyers wanted to build “a Taj Mahal to justice”; the bar and bench replied that a lack of money, poor planning and inefficiency by the Court would “result in another Central Expressway.” The lawyers’ opening proposal-16 stories, $76 million-was curtly dismissed by the Court; they countered with 10 stories and $37 million; the lawyers howled “impossible!” and made it clear they would rather lie down and let a truck run over their heads.

In August, they reached a compromise- 13 stories. The legal leaders insisted that $61.5 million was necessary to do the job adequately. The Court, led by Judge Crowley with his usual no-nonsense air, dismissed the figure, saying that $50 million was more than generous and you’ll not get another penny, sir! Enter the Criminal Bar Association, which maintained that no Lew Sterrett Center expansion was needed and that sufficient room existed at the “white courthouse” if a six-story, far cheaper ($39 million) civil courthouse were built.

The dispute developed the fixed pattern of a pirouette. All three sides swapped volleys of statistics, figures, charts, estimates-truth and fiction seemed to be riding in the same sentence. Cynics had heard it before: Yeah, the lawyers exaggerate their needs; sure, the County builds so cheap they’d skin a flea for its hide.

Henry Wade presented a frightening scenario which painted Dallas as a city ripe for burgeoning crime. To Wade, the larger, more costly courthouse was a must. Says Crowley: “I never could agree with the district attorney’s future projections. If his numbers were correct, by 2050 everybody in Dallas will be in jail, including the lawyers and judges.” The other aspect that bothered Crowley was the inefficient use of current courtroom space. “You know the story about the farmer foregoing the grange meeting because he didn’t want to learn to farm better-he ain’t farming as well as he could now. In the early Seventies, they were disposing of 1,300 to 1,400 felony cases a year; now, even with additional personnel and computers, it’s less than 1,000.”

The lawyers stood by their figures and projections, saying that they had been verified by economist John Sartain and a University of Texas at Austin mathematics professor. And there were other reasons why they believe Dallas County arrests will rise in the future:

●A recent shift in policy by Dallas Police Chief Billy Prince put more cops on the beat, thus increasing arrests; in 1984, 75 percent of the district attorney’s 64,000 criminal filings came from the DPD.

●In December 1983, two of the 51 squad cars in the Central Division (downtown) were equipped with Mobile Digital Terminals; they were responsible for 50 percent of the division’s activity because of the MDT’s instant response on local name, vehicle identification, license plate and driver’s license queries. Installation of MDTs in all cars begins next year.

●Overcrowding of Texas Department of Corrections facilities will continue to result in more prisoners being released on parole; one-third of TDC parolees commit new crimes.

●To further decrease TDC population, there is a trend toward making more theft offenses (burglary and Jarceny made up 82 percent of last year’s crime figures) misdemeanors by raising the amount of stolen property needed to classify the crimes as fel-


THE REST OF the Dallas County Commissioner’s Court under Judge Crowley:

Chris Semos, District 4, Democrat. Until recently, Semos was a restaurateur (owner of The Torch) who served eight terms in the Texas House. He’s a nuts-and-bolts man, the Court’s great conciliator. Critics say he has a morbid fear of controversy. Semos believes fervently that “the nail that sticks up gets pounded” and knows how to call a spade an agricultural implement.

Nancy Judy, District 2, Republican. An ex-GOP county leader and member of the school board, Judy gets the highest marks of all the commissioners. She is criticized for her lack of warmth and for “piling too much on her plate.” overextending. Judy is more a mainstream Republican than Crowley and therefore is largely ignored by the more conservative judge, who favors the other GOP member, Jim Jackson.

Jim Jackson, District 1, Republican. An insurance man, Jackson lost a congressional race to Martin Frost in 1982. He was more independent in his early commissioner days; now he is flaccidly subservient to Crowley and asks questions for questions’ sake. Appropriately, he sits farthest to the judge’s right in chambers.

John Wiley Price, District 3, Democrat.The newest member of the Court is the firstblack elected county official in Dallas’ history and a power in the Progressive Voter’sLeague. He served as administrative assistant to Justice of the Peace Cleo Steele beforehis election. Price has toned down his flamboyance and strident rhetoric: he is handsome, articulate and maturing fast; he oftenasks the tough questions regarding countyinefficiency. – R.W.

onies, therefore leaving more probationers in the community.

IN THE MIDST of this furious dance, it was suddenly revealed that the election to pass the County’s total $224-million program (which also included funds for road-and-bridge construction, highway projects, park land acquisition and other construction projects) had to be postponed. It seemed that no one in County government knew of a state law passed during last summer’s special session that required all bond elections in 1985 that included money for road-and-bridge construction to be held on one of four state election dates: January 19, April 6, August 10 or November 5. The DISD asked the County not to choose January 19 because of its bond election on February 12. The Court agreed. The election was set for April 6, 1985, since the city planned its bond election in August.

Things got down to bedrock during the last week of February. Not only did District Attorney Henry Wade disapprove of the courthouse proposal, he and respected businessman Harmon Schepps announced a campaign to defeat the whole thing. The 14 criminal district judges voted unanimously to join Wade, as did the Dallas Bar Association, after resisting pleas from Chamber of Commerce president Forrest Smith, Citizens Council director Alex Bickley and bond chairman and InterFirst Bank president Harvey Mitchell. Dallas leadership was aghast.

The lawyers knew that their opposition could result in some sticky situations. “Here’s how that works in Dallas,” says a member of the bar who’s familiar with the fight. “Your banker calls and says, ’We’re really worried about that loan. We’d never turn you down on account of that bond business, but now can we be confident you’ll be able to finish that project while losing so many friends?’ If you’re a developer and need capital to work, that’s not pleasant to hear.”

The Court stood firm, but as opposition in the legal community increased, they realized the possibility that their unyielding stance might actually result in the defeat of the entire bond program. Finally, their will proved not to be so unshakable. Dr. Samuel Johnson, the 18th-century English lexicographer and critic, would have recognized their unenviable position: “Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

Everyone was searching for a face-saving device, but it was Crowley and the Court who came up with a brilliant move on the political chessboard.

For the first time ever, an amendment gave voters the choice of approving the additional $11.5 million requested by the legal community (and vehemently opposed by the Court) to adequately build the 13-story criminal justice center structure. For the Court, it was a revolutionary idea-pure Jeffersonian politics, this notion of letting the people decide to spend more money than was previously decided upon. Despite every county judge and commissioner’s familiar harangue of “no new taxes while I’m on the Court,” perhaps the voters wouldn’t mind spending more money if they got something for their dollars. Hadn’t the DISD’s $195.5-miilion bond program that required a tax increase passed easily just two months before, thanks to a well-planned and articulate campaign?

“When we added the $11.5-million amendment, letting the voters decide their fete,” Crowley says, “we cut the legs off their [the lawyers’] argument. They had no alternative but to get aboard or be left sucking their thumbs in a sulk.” Perini agrees: “It was a very clever ploy to get us to withdraw our opposition or not get what we wanted. And, frankly, we were glad we had a reason to pull in our horns.”

All parties-except the Dallas Criminal Bar Association-dropped their opposition after the amendment was added to the proposal . Nevertheless, a poll 10 days before the vote showed the criminal justice center proposal losing heavily. The voters surprised everyone, though, by approving the whole package-$61.5 million for the Lew Sterrett Center-by a 14,000-vote margin. But it will be at least three years before the new building is finished.

Attorney Frank Finn, an admitted critic of county government and the Court, has studied Dallas County’s courthouse and criminal justice center proposals closely since 1973.

Despite the rancor, Finn believes that several good things have emerged from the yearlong battle. “Historically, the Court has determined beforehand how much money they [the County] can raise and where it will go. That becomes the bond program, regardless of need. Who says the people won’t approve more money or a tax increase? This vote showed the Court differently.”

Did a power shift occur because of the controversy? Was it just a one-time appearance on the power stage for the bar and bench? “The legal community didn’t gain a thing,” says Crowley. “You might just have said the Sisters of Charity gained clout.” Perini disagrees: “If we don’t continue to work in the arena or speak out on legal issues because we are stewards of the system, we could easily fade into the past. But I think we made a difference and will increasingly play an active role in making decisions about Dallas.”

Meanwhile, Vincent Perini has a newclient to think about as he enters the whitecourthouse’s first floor. He will use thestrategy he devised in the mid-Sixties tocatch the elevator: Walk down a floor, catchthe elevator to the basement, then ride it upto the floor of the day, hoping the court hasn’tbeen moved this week.