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BUCHMEYER VS. DALLAS

This is a story of truth (Was he lying?), justice (Is he fair?), and the Dallas way (Who really runs this city?). At the eye of the storm is a lonely, middle-aged man who says he is simply following, not making, the law.
By Dennis Holder |

A JOHN WILLIAMS GUITAR TAPE RIPPLES from the stereo, reaches the end, rewinds, and plays again. A murder mystery lies open, face down, on an end table. Sunlight washes the rough cedar paneling in the one room that looks lived in. Jerry Lynn Buchmeyer, balding and diminutive, slouches in a corner chair, distracted, staring through the glass at a pool sweep as it meanders across the quiet afternoon water. No voices interrupt his reverie. No tasks demand his attention. He sits and muses, and time goes by. ■ Can this be U.S. District Judge Jerry Buchmeyer, the feisty federal pit bull who has shaken Dallas by its hair for two years over the issue of redistricting the city council? Is this the fearless jurist who once tossed out the Texas statute banning homosexual behavior? Who upheld the city’s law restricting sexually oriented businesses? Who forced taxpayers to spend millions rejuvenating public ghetto housing? Is it the same man famous in legal circles for his manic energy and irreverent humor? ■ Yes, it is the same Jerry Buchmeyer, but it is Jerry Buchmeyer alone, as he so often is these days. It is Jerry Buchmeyer newly forsaken by his second wife, who parched in the glare of her husband’s office. It is Jerry Buchmeyer villified by conservative politicians, threatened by anonymous racists, badgered by an uninformed press. It is Jerry Buchmeyer despised by citizens who believe he seeks to usurp their right to govern Dallas by themselves.

To much of Dallas, Buchmeyer has become the personification of an ogre called the federal bench. His order requiring 14 single-member council districts (the 14-1 plan), despite a popular vote favoring 10 district representatives and four super-district council members (the 10-4-1 plan), rouses deep passions, sometimes naked hatred. “Who does this clown think he is?” people demand in North Dallas living rooms and East Dallas bars. “Who elected him God?”

Friends-and they are few but fiercely loyal-see him differently, of course. They know Buchmeyer as a dedicated legal scholar, as a man committed, above all, to fairness, as a judge who struggles mightily to put aside his own opinions and take guidance from the law. To them, Buchmeyer is a victim of his own conscience.

“Jerry didn’t attempt to make any new law in the Dallas redistricting case,” says the judge’s closest friend, attorney Louis Weber. “He simply followed the laws that were already on the books and the guidelines set down in earlier federal court decisions. A lot of people don’t understand that he didn’t have any choice in the matter. He had to go by what the law said.”

Agrees Buchmeyer, “It doesn’t matter what I think. I have to find out what the law is and enforce it. I didn’t just dream up the Voting Rights Act (the controlling statute in the redistricting case). Congress passed that law a long time before I became a judge. I have to apply it.”

But Weber is right. A lot of people don’t understand. After redistricting became a hot issue, Buchmeyer received scores of death threats, hundreds of phone calls boiling with obscenities. For a while, U.S. marshals escorted him to and from the Dallas federal building and prowled his neighborhood at night. He considered buying a gun for personal protection. An open-door policy gave way to an unlisted home number and rigorous screening of office calls and visitors.

Not all of the perils have been physical, though. Reacting to his redistricting decision, conservatives challenged Buchmeyer’s integrity in a complaint to his superiors at the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. Mayor Annette Strauss claimed he ordered her to lie about a private conversation. Councilman Jerry Bartos launched a smear campaign suggesting Buchmeyer acted improperly in appointing his friend Weber as a special master in the Dallas public housing case. And congressional candidate Tom Pauken sought to make Buchmeyer the Willie Horton of his campaign, raging against the judge to distract voters from more fundamental issues.

Since he touched off the redistricting controversy early in 1990 by nullifying the city’s former council system-eight single-district members and three elected at large-Buchmeyer has lived in a continual state of siege. And the battle has taken its toll. Though he still plays a mean game of tennis at age 58, Buchmeyer says his health has declined dramatically under the strain of the redistrict-ing case. His blood pressure has shot up, and he now suffers hypertension so severe it sometimes causes retina] hemorrhaging, bleeding from the eyes.

Perhaps more important, Buchmeyer, already a shy and private man, has retreated into himself. He has become a man isolated from the com-munity he is commanded to serve by the very weight of the lifetime office he holds.

“I worry about him,” says Buchmeyer’s brother Dean, the only physician in Wortham, Texas. “I know he is lonely. At this point in his life, I am afraid he is a very lonely man.”



“I DON’T KNOW IF YOU CAN HAVE A RIGHT side of the tracks and a wrong side in a town of 2,000 people,” Jerry Buchmeyer says in the slow drawl of his native Rusk County. “But if there was a wrong side of the tracks in Overton, Texas, that’s where I grew up.”

The elegant oak paneling of the Belo Mansion, headquarters of the Dallas Bar Association, surrounds Buchmeyer as he recalls his childhood. The comfortable trappings and a chilly glass of good Scotch whiskey help him relax enough to talk about the past that shaped his philosophy. It is something he ordinarily avoids, preferring a quick quip to an introspective answer.

“Are you really the liberal a lot of people accuse you of being?” I ask him as we chat. It is the one thing I most want to understand about Jerry Buchmeyer. Is he actually out of touch with the tenor of conservative Dallas? Does some fiery, liberal world view inform his judicial decisions?

“I was a Democratic appointee,” he responds. “I was appointed by President Carter. But I’ve never been active in politics.”

“But are you a liberal?” I ask again. I will press my inquiry many more times during our conversations. Until the very last interview, he will consistently duck the question. This time, he turns it aside with a rambling autobiography.

“As a historical note,” he says, “I ought to explain that my father was one of only two or three Republicans in our whole county. This was yellow-dog Democrat country, and you couldn’t even vote for a Republican in those days. There weren’t any. My father was kind of a renegade in that respect. I don’t know how much his politics influenced me, but I’m sure it had some effect.”

Buchmeyer remembers a childhood full of friends and fun. There were sweet gum ball fights and neighborhood boxing matches and badminton in the back yard. There were the usual games of cowboys and Indians, including the time Jerry and Dean tied little Charlie McGee to the family car and left him there. There was the accident with the BB gun and the mother hysterical because of Jerry’s swollen eye, which turned out to be only a bad bruise.

During Buchmeyer’s early years, the flock of playmates included the black kids who lived across the street. As he got older, though, his parents, Hargis and Minnie Mae, suggested that he ought to find other friends. Like many youngsters throughout the South, he gradually came to understand that proper white youths did not associate with their black neighbors.

“I never sat down to talk to my brother about why we had a nice high school and the black kids had to go to another school that wasn’t as good,” Buchmeyer says now. “I never asked my parents why they didn’t want me to be friends with black people my age. I just accepted it. That was the way things were in those days. We had our school and our friends. They had theirs.”

In high school, Buchmeyer played tennis, baseball, and basketball. He tried out for the football team every year but always seemed to break an arm or a leg before the season started. He was the chinning champion of the track team. He and his brother were also straight-A students.

“I was valedictorian at Overton High School in 1950,” recalls Dean Buchmeyer. “Jerry was valedictorian the next year. It was kind of a competitive thing with us. Jerry worked so hard and made such good grades that he pushed me to do the same thing.”

Buchmeyer did not intend to become a lawyer when he went to Kilgore Junior College. 10 miles up the road from Overton. In fact, he had no career goal at all. “I only went to college because it was what my parents and my teachers expected,” he says. “I didn’t know why I was going.”

During his second year at Kilgore, a friend decided to move to the University of Texas in Austin and strike tor a law degree. Buch-meyer had no better plans, so he tagged along. In 1957, he was graduated from law school with the highest grades in UT history, a record that would stand for 15 years.

The one story people remember about Buchmeyer during his law school years has to do with a time when he suffered a severe headache. A friendly druggist gave him a suppository to ease the pain. “I can’t swallow this thing,” Buchmeyer told his young wife. Then, with a stroke, he whacked the suppository in half and swallowed both halves,

In the 1950s, big law firms did not woo the best and brightest graduates with lush dinners and promises of huge salaries, as they do today. Buchmeyer scoured a legal directory and wrote to four or five prospective employers. The old Dallas firm, Thompson & Knight, offered to pay his expenses for an interview. Buchmeyer was so impressed by this largess that he accepted the firm’s first offer, $375 a month.

“I thought that was an enormous amount of money,” he recalls.

At Thompson & Knight, Buchmeyer handled a variety of cases but eventually settled into a niche as an antitrust attorney. After six years, he became a partner in the firm. By 1979, his annual earnings topped $250,000.

In that year, two federal judgeships opened up in Dallas. Barefoot Sanders was a shoo-in for one of them because of his close association with Sen. Lloyd Bentsen. Former President Jimmy Carter considered several candidates for the other.

“Jerry and I were the final choices, and we both wanted the job.” says Louis Weber. “President Carter picked Jerry. It is probably the best thing that ever happened for both of us.”

“I could be making a lot more money than my judicial salary (currently $125,100) if I had stayed with the law firm,” Buchmeyer says. “And the work probably would not be as hard.” But then he adds. “I have the best job in the legal profession. No lawyer in private practice sees the diversity of cases that I see. Being a federal judge is extremely interesting work.”



“FEDERAL JUDGES ARE POMPOUS AND TE-dious and arrogant and humorless. . .”

Pause.

“And those are their good points.”

U.S. District Judge Jerry Buchmeyer has just been introduced to a roomful of attorneys from across the country as “God.” Now, the hall twinkles with laughter as he explains the difficulties of delivering a speech as boring as they must expect from someone in his position.

“That’s one of the advantages of being a federal judge,” he says. “Lawyers always laugh at my jokes, even if they aren’t funny.”

If Buchmeyer could do anything he wanted right this minute, he would hit the road as a stand-up comic. Nothing else perks him up like the chance to haul himself up to his full five feet, five-and-a-half inches and let go with a string of barbs and one liners.

“I had a brilliant idea about how to make a boring speech. I thought, why don’t I just talk to you about our newest justice of the Supreme Court, David Souter.. .

“It was a brilliant idea until I finally realized who David Souter looks like. Souter is a dead ringer for.. .serial killer Henry-Lee Lucas. Gaunt face. Sunken, piercing eyes. And then, when you read those interviews with neighbors.

“He’s real quiet...

“Kinda strange…

“Stays inside by himself all the time.. ,

“I’m not surprised he fell in with bad company- But, there’s nothing boring about Bush appointing a serial killer to the bench. Now, that’s not a slam against President Bush. I mean, so what if the guy is an ax murderer ? He’s against abortion.

Buchmeyer may be the only person in the world who collects funny judicial opinions. In fact, he may be the only person who believes such things exist. But he keeps a stack of them in a closet and digs them out whenever he craves a chuckle.

“I try to sneak something funny into a decision now and then.” he says, an elfin smile playing at the down-turned corners of his mouth. “Decisions are so dry and boring. I try to have a little fun with one occasionally.”

A complaint from an inmate in the Dallas County jail led to one decision other lawyers cite as a Buchmeyer comedy classic. On the one hand, the inmate objected to female deputies being present when he was strip-searched. On the other hand, the man railed against the jail’s decision not to allow him to read Easy Rider magazine in his cell.

“His first claim was his objecting to females looking at him,” Buchmeyer recalls. ’’His second claim was that he had a right to look at nude pictures. I began the opinion, ’This case involves dirty looks and dirty books.’ It kind of went downhill from there.”

Collections of lawyer jokes, which pack columns he writes for bar association newspapers and other publications, occasionally rankle attorneys. “You’d be surprised how many lawyers have no sense of humor whatsoever” he says. He also collects funny questions and answers from the courtroom.

Question: Doctor, you examined the plaintiff. As the result of your examination, was the young lady pregnant?

Answer: The young lady was pregnant, but not as a result of my examination.

Question: What did your husband do before your divorce?

Answer: A lot of things I never knew about while we were married.

Question: Isn’t it a fact that you’ve been running around with another woman?

Answer: Yes it is, but you can’t prove it.

“When I hear something like that in a courtroom, I laugh,1’ says Buchmeyer. “The jury kind of takes their cues from the judge, and I think they should see that a trial is a human event, not some awesome proceeding. Judges and lawyers are just people.”

Humor is a shield for Jerry Buchmeyer. It insulates him from the anger he confronts in social situations. It disguises the fact that he suffers deeply because of his own perceived inability to make small talk. It deflects attention from the issues before him in the court, issues he is forbidden to discuss even when they rank foremost in the minds of people he encounters.

“1 find that a little humor can get me through a lot of situations,” he explains. “I know a lot of people are mad at me sometimes. If I can make them laugh, we can all get through it.”

The one place where Buchmeyer sheds his chain-mail humor is inside the Belo Mansion. He was president of the Dallas Bar Association when the organization moved to the former house of Dallas Morning News founder A.H. Belo in 1979. For him, the building is a special shrine.

“Aside from my home and my office, this is where I feel comfortable,” he says. “This is one place where people don’t call me ’Judge.’ They treat me like an ordinary person. Most of the people who come in here are lawyers, and lawyers are good company. They tell great stories. They are good drinking buddies.”

One afternoon. Buchmeyer takes me on a guided tour of the Belo Mansion. We are accompanied by Waller M. Collie Jr., another former Dallas bar president who is Buch-meyer’s close friend and former father-in-law. Together, they explain how the structure, formerly a funeral home, was converted into the showplace it is today. “Of course, the bar was the first thing we installed when we bought the building,” explains Buchmeyer. “The chandelier in the foyer was our second purchase,” adds Collie. “It came from the set of ’Upstairs, Downstairs.’”

“Bodies were embalmed in the basement,” says Buchmeyer. “That’s always been my favorite part of the building. We put a library down there, but you can still imagine it as an embalming room. It is a very peaceful room.”

Every Tuesday afternoon. Buchmeyer and a clique of friends, nearly all of them past Dallas Bar Association presidents, gather in the Belo Mansion bar to swap stories, read poetry, and gossip. The aging senior partner of one of the city’s most renowned law firms reads limericks from a breast-pocket notebook. A well-known bank attorney trots out a new string of off-color jokes.

“There’s a little creative tension in the Tuesday group,” explains one member. “It’s almost a contest. Who can be the funniest. Who can get the best puns. Who can remember the most about 50-year-old movies. Jerry really does well here. He is especially good on old movies.”

On these occasions, Buchmeyer seems almost giddy. His laugh grows louder and rises to a higher pitch than the chortle he shows to the public. He often leads the group in recitations of “Casey at the Bat” or “The Cremation of Sam McGee.” He encourages his friends to pass around the Shel Silverstein poem, “Rosalie’s Good Eats Cafe,” so that one hapless soul gets stuck reading the single “dirty verse.”

Calling themselves the Tuesday Irregulars, the members of Buchmeyer’s clique jealously guard their privacy. Outsiders are admitted to meetings only on the condition that nothing seen or heard in the Belo bar will be repeated outside.

“1 think this is the only place where Jerry ever lets his hair down,” says one member of the Tuesday group. “The people here are the only ones who ever get to know him.”

The Tuesday Irregulars know Buchmeyer as one of only a handful of white Dallas lawyers who make it a point to show up at the Belo Mansion for social gatherings of minority attorneys. They know him as a man who devotes countless Saturdays to help high-school students who participate in moot-court competitions. They also know him as a hard-working, concerned judge.

“People don’t realize how much time Jerry devotes to his job,” says one. “They see him writing his columns and giving speeches, and they think he doesn’t have time to do any work. The fact is, he often gets to his office before 6:00 in the morning and is still there at 8:00 or 9:00 at night”

Says another, “Jerry won’t tell you this, but he hardly ever gets any sleep on Thursday nights. Friday is sentencing day, and he just lies awake all night worrying about the sentences he will have to hand down. Sentences have a huge effect on people’s lives. He wants to be sure he is doing the right thing, and, of course, no one can ever be sure.”

In conversations away from the group. I ask several members the question Buch-meyer does not wish to answer. “Is he a liberal? Is he trying to impose his personal vision on the city of Dallas’?” In every case, the answer boils down to the idea that Buch-meyer is driven only by a sense of fairness.

“He may be liberal on certain social questions.” says one longtime friend, “but he is extremely conservative in many ways. It is important to understand that he comes from a very small town. He has, basically, small town values.’”

The most telling response comes from a woman member of the Irregulars. “The one thing that guides Jerry is an extraordinary sense of fairness. He is passionately but objectively fair in the same sense that the American Civil Liber-lies Union is fair. He will stand up for what is fair, even if the ideas involved are personally offensive to him.”



“THIS JUDGE, FOR whatever reasons, has a very arrogant notion about his ability to make decisions about how to rule the city of Dallas,” exclaims Tom Pauken, a businessman and lawyer who, as D went to press, was seeking the congressional seat recently vacated by Steve Bartlett. “Buchmeyer has become obsessed with this case. He is very emotionally involved with it. He has lost all sense of fairness and objectivity.”

As a leader of the “Just Say No To 14-1” campaign, which resulted in the close, but nonetheless decisive, popular vote against 14-1, Pauken has become Buchmeyer’s leading adversary. As the sponsor of official complaints challenging Buchmeyer’s integrity in the case, he has become the judge’s personal nemesis.

“I won’t say he should step down from the bench,” Pauken says. “But he certainly should recuse himself from any cases involving the city of Dallas. He has abused his power as a federal judge. That’s an enormous amount of power, and he’s used it inappropriately in cases involving the city.”

Buchmeyer refuses to respond to Pauken’s assaults. But his record shows him to be a judge far different from the heavily biased flaming liberal Pauken wants voters to believe he is. Take his impressive Dallas Bar Association ratings, for example.

In the DBA poll in 1989, 610 lawyers rated Buchmeyeron five judicial qualities including temperament, impartiality, and application of the law. In response to the question: “Is this judge impartial?” 537 lawyers, or 91 percent, answered, “Yes.” On the question: “Does this judge correctly apply the law?” 531 attorneys, also 91 percent, said “Yes.” Buchmeyer’s judicial temperament was approved by 92 percent. Only 87 percent considered Buchmeyer hard-working, but 92 percent, 544 attorneys, approved of his overall performance.

Compare those scores with totals collected by Buchmeyer’s colleague, Federal Judge A. Joe Fish, and you get an idea of Buchmeyer’s reputation. Fish scored 76 percent on impartiality, 72 percent on correct application of the law, and 70 percent on judicial temperament. Only 85 percent of the lawyers who responded considered Fish hard-working, and a mere 73 percent approved of his overall performance.

’’Jerry’s always fair, always courteous, always practical, always up on the law,” says attorney Frank P. Hernandez, who has practiced often in Buchmeyer’s court. “But I’ve certainly never considered him a liberal. I’ve been involved in some cases where, I would have to say, his opinions represented Mom and apple pie conservatism.”

One of those cases in which Hernandez was involved was a challenge to a Dallas city ordinance restricting sexually oriented businesses. Designed to limit porno movie theaters, massage parlors, and motels that rent rooms by the hour, the law was attacked by Hernandez and other attorneys as an unconstitutional use of city zoning and licensing authority.

In his 1986 decision, Buchmeyer gave a brief nod to Constitutional protections of sexually oriented materials and activities as free expression. But he upheld the Dallas ordinance, saying, “Restrictions in the place and manner of sexually oriented expression through zoning regulation is the most recent jurisprudential attempt to allow the majority community structure to coexist with minority expression; the sexually oriented business ordinance enacted by the city follows the substantive dictates of this body of law and must be upheld.”

Says Hernandez, “If he had been trying to impose his own ideas, he could have thrown out the ordinance. But he went by the law as he understood it, and I think that’s what you always see in his court. He always is very careful and very ethical.”

Ironically, judicial ethics are at the heart of the swelling controversy currently surrounding Jerry Buchmeyer and his court. A conversation with Dallas Mayor Annette Strauss before the December election in which 14-1 was defeated was improper and unethical, Pauken and others charge. Ethics prohibit judges from discussing cases with any of the parties in the suit.

“I did not say anything to the mayor that I had not written in my formal opinion in March, 1990,” Buchmeyer says. “I simply repeated what I had written down and entered into the record.”

The record in question is Buchmeyer’s formal opinion nullifying the system of city elections by which Dallas has chosen its council for the past 10 years. That system, the judge wrote, unfairly denies minorities access to power. According to rulings from the Reagan Justice Department and from the courts, only a system of single-member districts can correct the inequity.

In the same opinion, Buchmeyer noted that, unless the Justice Department approved a delay, a city election must be held on the normally scheduled date, May 4, 1991. The Voting Rights Act bars any deviation from voting practices without approval from the Justice Department, he explained.

“The Voting Rights Act is very clear in its language and intent,” says Neil Cogan, associate dean of the law school at Southern Methodist University. “Rulings on the issues have been clear and consistent. Buchmeyer didn’t really have any room to apply his own philosophy even if he wanted to.”

Adds Cogan, “The [5th U.S. Circuit] appeals court gave the city a grace period to present the 10-4-1 plan to the Justice Department. But the appeals court did not disagree with Buchmeyer on any of the substantive issues. The only argument that exists is over whether the election had to be held on May 4. The appeals court decided to give the city the benefit of the doubt.”

At this point, hardly anyone versed in the law disagrees with Cogan’s conclusion that Buchmeyer applied the law judiciously in the redistricting case. But the question remains: Did the judge break with the ethics of the court when he explained the law to Strauss? In a complaint to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, Pauken claimed the conversation was “ex parte” (in the interest of one side only) and therefore unethical. Charles Clark, chief judge of the appellate court, ruled that the conversation was “ill-advised” but not prejudicial. A second complaint, filed by Pauken and coun-cilmembers Jerry Bartos and Glenn Box, is pending as this story goes to press.

The facts surrounding the Buchmeyer-Strauss conversation may never be known. Buchmeyer tells me that he received permission from all attorneys involved before he spoke to the mayor. He points out that City Attorney Analeslie Muncy was recovering from a hospital stay at the time, and the city was represented before his court by attorney Mike McKool Jr., who approved the chat with Strauss, he says.

McKool will not discuss the question. But some councilmembers claim he privately told city officials that he never talked with Buchmeyer about the issue. Did he? At the time of the Buchmeyer-Strauss conversation, McKool apparently represented the city without the knowledge of the city council. It is impossible to know just what took place.

“I’m not really sure what happened,” says Jerry Bartos. “I have had drinks with Judge Buchmeyer socially on two occasions, and I personally like the man. I believe he is, essentially, a man of integrity. But I think there are some questions about his conduct that have to be answered.”

“I find that controversy amusing,” says SMU’s Cogan. “What you have is the city attorney claiming the judge spoke improperly when he talked to the mayor. But the mayor, as the chief official of the city, is the city attorney’s client. The lawyer is complaining because the judge helped that client, not because he did something to benefit the other side.”

Chances are the questions worrying Pauken and Bartos and a host of other Buchmeyer critics never will be answered. Judges in the 5th Circuit will weigh the information at hand and take whatever action they deem appropriate. If they censure the Dallas judge, Buchmeyer says he will accept their decision without comment.

“They are my superiors,” he says. “They grade my papers.”



THE POOL SWEEP CONTINUES ITS AIMLESS journey across the placid surface. Jerry Buchmeyer absent-mindedly exchanges the John Williams tape for an album of songs by Aaron Neville. The lowering sun slowly shuts the afternoon.

One last time, I ask the judge, “Are you a liberal? Do you have it in for the conservatives or for Dallas?”

This time he answers, softly, with apparent reluctance, as though confessing a great transgression. “I guess I am a liberal, at least a little. But I don’t have it in for anybody. I am just doing my best to follow the law.”

He escorts me through the handsomely furnished but essentially empty house in this solidly middle-class neighborhood near Lakewood. We pass the closet where he stores his collection of videotapes, all of the Bogie classics and the worst movies ever made, including Plan 9 From Outer Space and Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. He points out the breakfast nook where he and his second wife, Chris, and their son, James-“7, going on 21”-liked to gather until the final split early this year.

On the front walk, Buchmeyer points out the home of Paula Billingsley of the U.S. Attorney’s office, who lives across the street. “My oldest daughter, Pam (by his first wife, and also a lawyer), lives nearby,” he says. “She has a 3-year-old daughter, and they come to see Grandpa pretty often.”

As I prepare to drive away, Buchmeyer asks, “Why don’t we get together for a drink or something after you get this project done?”

Briefly, I recall something he said earlier. “One of the big things you have to avoid when you’re a federal judge is becoming a recluse. There isn’t much social life. There aren’t many people you can talk to.”

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