Supreme Court Justice Few Folks Can AffordBy Craig McDonald
Texans for Public Justice, Director
In 1987, the TV-news program "60 Minutes" ran an expose on corruption in the Texas Supreme Court called "Justice for Sale." Ten years later, Texas' highest court is still mired in the same corrupting fundraising practices that has made our highest civil court a national embarrassment. These disturbing findings come to light in "Payola Justice," a comprehensive study of the fundraising activities of the seven Supreme Court Justices elected since 1994—the so-called "Clean Slate" candidates. The report, compiled by the non-profit research group Texans for Public Justice, presents facts that should disturb all who care about the quality of justice and democracy in our state.
Payola Justice reveals that:
- The seven justices raised $9.2 million in their bids for the court. Of that amount, $3.7 million, or 40 percent of the money raised, came from the lawyers, law firms, or parties that had cases before the court during the same time period.
- All of the seven justices studied raised huge amounts of money from people with cases before the court. Leading the pack were Justice Greg Abbott and former Justice John Cornyn, who took 46 percent of their money from people with cases before them. Chief Justice Phillips got 43 percent of his money from parties with cases in his court room.
- Sixty percent of the 530 opinions that the court issued since 1964 were tainted by the fact that at least one of the seven justices studied took money from one or more parties involved in the case.
If a federal judges take money from HMOs, insurance companies, nursing homes, polluters, lawyers or other parties with cases before their court, they run the risk of bribery charges. Here in Texas, such practices are business as usual. For example, the CEO of a major Texas retailing firm with a 1996 Supreme Court case contributed $53,000 to the justices. The court ruled favorably for the corporation, saving it hundreds of thousands of dollars. The same CEO (who now has another case pending) recently hosted a gala fundraiser in his home for Justice Craig Enoch.
Who were the other interested parties bankrolling our Supreme Court justices? Lawyers and law firms topped the list, contributing $3.8 million. Eighty percent of this money came from lawyers and law firms with cases before the court. Vinson & Elkins, a firm that was litigating 12 cases before the Supreme Court, gave the seven justices a whopping $244,018.
Corporate PACs and executives were the next most generous contributors, giving the seven justices $1.4 million, or 15 percent of their total haul. Enron, the Houston-based natural gas giant, was the most lucrative corporate pipeline. Enron pumped $78,700 into the seven justices' campaigns. In May 1996, the justices handed down a tax case ruling that favored their premier corporate contributor. Their decision in Enron v. Spring Independent School District prevented the company from having to pay $15 million in taxes to the school district of Spring, Texas. Like Enron, many other heavy corporate contributors (including Dow Chemical, Exxon, Coastal Corp., Houston Industries and Texas Utilities) had cases pending before the Supreme Court.
A 1994 asbestos case pitting almost 1,000 Gulf Coast workers against 55 corporate defendants, American Petrofina et al. v. Russell Allen et al., further illustrates the extent to which money gums up the Texas Supreme Court's scales of justice. One justice, Raul Gonzalez, took $84,252 from the corporations and the defense lawyers involved in this case within two months of the court unanimously ruling for the petrochemical companies. The seven justices studied took $537,318 from the 55 corporate defendants between 1994 and 1997.
Texans deserve a cleaner system of justice. Above all other institutions, the judiciary is supposed to be impartial and free of special-interest influence. Does anyone really expect Texas Supreme Court justices to be so schizophrenic as to rake in $1 million in special-interest contributions with one hand while impartially swinging the gavel with the other?
We need a system that isolates justices from this flood of special-interest money. Texas is the largest of just nine states in which justices are selected through partisan elections. A better system would allow the governor to select Supreme Court justices from a short list submitted by a broad-based judicial nominating commission. If any of these apples go bad on the bench, voters could still be given an opportunity to retire them through periodic "yes" or "no" retention votes.
Justice is supposed to be blind. But the blind spot in Texas justice is to put our faith in rulings that are tainted by huge campaign contributions. Justice should not be for sale.