Absolute power corrupts absolutely. It’s an old phrase, but one that still resonates with many of us concerned that any one person, group or entity shouldn’t have ultimate power without the checks and balances upon which our nation was founded.
With that, a troubling development in Dallas bears watching as one man is trying to take over the entire city government, orchestrating a coup the likes of which we’ve rarely seen before. And what makes it really problematic is who he is – Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins.
As with our police commissioners and other top law enforcement officials, we look to district attorneys to operate as apolitical public servants tasked with metering out justice. We give them power – in many ways more than mayors and city council members – and expect their use of that power to be based solely on the pursuit of justice.
Watkins, however, appears to be putting his finger on those scales. Along with recruiting his top deputy to run against the county’s sitting Democratic Party chair, he has recruited six prosecutors from his office to run in Democratic primaries for state judge, either against Democratic incumbents or for open seats.
It’s an obvious power ploy. If his recruits win, Watkins will have judges who are beholden to him – not to the judicial system or even to voters – and potentially could make decisions in his favor. Even if they lose, Watkins is demonstrating how crossing him comes with the expensive consequence of garnering a challenger.
Does Watkins see himself as above the law? He refused to answer questions before State District Judge Lena Levario about whether he indicted an oil heir for mortgage fraud as a favor to Dallas attorney Lisa Blue, a long-time supporter and fund-raiser. The first time, he even refused to enter the courtroom. Levario held Watkins in contempt of court and ruled he improperly influenced his staff to get the heir, Al Hill III, indicted.
After Levario dismissed the criminal charges against Hill, Watkins tried to get her recused from the case and opened a criminal investigation against her and two other judges, accusing them of conspiring to have them held in contempt. He even tried to subpoena them before a grand jury.
The Dallas Morning News reported just this week that Watkins continues to be the subject of an FBI investigation.
To see Watkins act as if he is above the law, above reproach and out to destroy those who have crossed him raises more serious questions about the separation of powers in Dallas. Though elected along party lines, it is important for judges and district attorneys to be impartial.
A chief deputy district attorney simultaneously serving as the county’s party chair along with the district attorney controlling up to six judges would destroy any pretense of Dallas County courts impartiality. It would also legitimately raise questions about every arrest, prosecution and conviction. The looming threat of such a scenario already puts all involved on notice.
Cities and counties are often viewed as the “farm teams” for future state and federal leaders. With that, what’s going on in Dallas deserves close attention – certainly as a local issue, but also as an example that political assaults against governmental checks and balances can and do exist.
Taxpayers must be vigilant ensuring interests of the public at large – not just an influential few – are protected.