Plaintiffs: Voters Should Not Have To Elect Justices
Whose Records Are Secrets
|For Immediate Release:|
For More Information Contact:
|May 21, 2002|
Craig McDonald, 512-472-9770
Austin, TX: A group of Texas organizations and citizens filed suit in federal court today to force the Texas Supreme Court to disclose records of how each justice votes on whether or not the Court will decide a case. The Court keeps voting records on these “petitions for review” secret even though many of the justices’ top campaign donors have interests in the outcome of these secret decisions.
“In America, secret justice is not acceptable,” said Cristen Feldman, spokesperson for Texans for Public Justice, a plaintiff in the lawsuit. “The Texas Supreme Court currently rejects 9 out of 10 appeals on a secret ballot. How are voters supposed to make intelligent choices when hundreds of the Court’s decisions are kept secret every year?”
Before the Texas Supreme Court hears a case on appeal, four of the nine justices must agree to support the litigant’s “petition for review.” The court receives approximately 900 such petitions each year, typically voting to accept just 11 percent of them. The court’s policy is to keep these voting records secret. While individual justices can voluntarily reveal how they voted, they rarely do. Fourteen other states—including California, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi and Ohio—routinely disclose these voting records to the public. Texas voters, who are deprived of similar records, will elect five Supreme Court justices in November.
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are represented by attorneys for the National Voting Rights Institute (NVRI), a Boston-based non-profit legal center that specializes in campaign finance litigation. The plaintiffs include Common Cause, the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), Texans for Public Justice (TPJ), The Texas Observer, Supreme Court candidate Brad Rockwell, Houston attorney Terry Hogwood, Denton, Texas voters Jamie Barnes and Romelia Cardona and Del Rio, Texas voters Humberto Aguirre and Eulalio Calderon, Jr. The lawsuit, which names the Texas Supreme Court Justices and clerk of the Texas Supreme Court as defendants, was filed in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas in Del Rio. NVRI attorney Bonita Tenneriello is serving as lead counsel for the plaintiffs. Attorneys for the Texas ACLU and TPJ are serving as co-counsel and attorney David Riojas of Del Rio is local counsel.
Among other complaints, the lawsuit alleges that the First Amendment gives the public and the media a right to know the justices’ votes on petitions for review. “The Constitution protects the public’s right to information about the government,” said NVRI attorney Bonita Tenneriello. “Democracy requires voters to hold elected officials accountable for their actions. The fact that Texas Justices receive large campaign contributions makes it even more important that the Justices’ decisions be transparent.”
“The Court has no justification for its secrecy,” added Tenneriello. “The suit does not seek disclosure of any internal court deliberations.” Instead, it argues that the justices’ final votes on the merits of accepting an appealed case should be disclosed, just as the court typically reveals where each justice stands on published decisions. “How the justices vote on petitions for review is crucial, “ said Tenneriello, “because these votes determine the tiny elite of litigants who are allowed to make their case before Texas’ highest civil court.”
“The public has a compelling interest in the integrity of the Texas Supreme Court and our readers have a right to know whether or not campaign contributions have corrupted that system,” said Texas Observer Editor Nate Blakeslee.
“Because Texas judges raise millions of dollars from the very litigants and lawyers who bring appeals to them, it is critical that we know how they vote on those appeals,” said Common Cause of Texas Director Suzy Woodford. “Over half of the $12 million that the justices raised between 1994 and 1998 came from donors who filed petitions for review. Does the court give those donors favorable treatment? We need to lift the veil of secrecy and find out.”
Even insider voices have noted accountability problems bred by the court’s secrecy. “If our votes on applications [for review] were always public, some would change,” Texas Supreme Court Justice Nathan Hecht wrote in his 1996 dissenting opinion in Maritime Overseas Corp. v. Ellis1. “I am forced to conclude that the time has come for the Court to make public its votes on applications.”
Note:The Boston-based National Voting Rights Institute is a non-profit legal center which specializes in campaign finance litigation. The Institute seeks to vindicate the constitutional right of all citizens, regardless of their economic status, to participate in the electoral process on an equal and meaningful basis.