Tuesday, June 3, 2003

Already hailed as the first Latina to sit on the San Antonio-based Fourth Court of Appeals, Chief Justice Alma Lopez has earned another distinction according to a new study: top campaign fund-raiser.

Judge excels in fund raising

By Maro Robbins, San Antonio Express-News

Already hailed as the first Latina to sit on the San Antonio-based Fourth Court of Appeals, Chief Justice Alma Lopez has earned another distinction according to a new study: top campaign fund-raiser.

The report, released last month by the nonprofit Texans for Public Justice, found Lopez was the only candidate for one of the state's 14 mid-level appellate courts to raise more than $300,000 since 1996.

Lopez, the study says, twice passed this mark and raised twice the average amount for 4th Court races - the institution that generally has the last ruling in cases from Menard to Zapata.

But while the Democrat's deep pockets may intimidate potential challengers, the analysis suggests her war chest reflects her party's ebbing influence in the courthouse as much as it does her prowess as a candidate.

The nonprofit calculated that, in order to win, Democrats had to raise on average 78 percent more than Republicans. Lopez, 59, raised $343,889 and $338,670 respectively - roughly twice as much as her GOP opponents in last year's race for the job of chief justice and when she fought for re-election in 2000.

The next-largest war chests belonged to Democrats Jan Patterson of the Austin-based Third Court of Appeals ($296,684) and Dori Contreras Garza of the Corpus Christi-based Thirteenth Court of Appeals ($266,072). Lopez's 4th Court colleague Catherine M. Stone, also a Democrat, ranked 10th with a $180,859 purse in 2000.

Lopez said she needed deep pockets to ensure victory in a race spanning a vast area. Making no apologies, she chafed at the TPJ study's subtitle: "Lawyers Keep Texas Appeals Judges on Retainer."

"I defy anyone," Lopez said, to show that fund raising has eroded her independence on the bench and that her rulings blindly favor her donors - some 77 percent of whom, the study found, were lawyers.

"Even though the perception may be there that justice is for sale, it's not," she said.

Observers believe several factors helped fill Lopez's purse, from the district's size to Democratic Party doldrums and Lopez's own personal drive.

Lopez is one of the court's two remaining Democrats. With Republicans wholly controlling appellate courts in Dallas, Houston and Fort Worth as well as the Texas Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals, the 4th Court is one of the few in which both parties have a real shot at winning.

The TPJ study described the 4th Court as "a partisan battleground," and the nonprofit's research director Andrew Wheat said that close contests energize support.

Another factor, Wheat said, is that campaigns in large metropolitan districts generally have bigger bankrolls partly because more money is available there and more is necessary.

The 4th Court spans 32 counties, an area larger than Pennsylvania. That means candidates must buy expensive airtime in several television markets. It also means they have more donors to tap.

The court's recently retired Chief Justice Phil Hardberger, who worked alongside Lopez for about seven years, added a personal observation. He suggested that Lopez's unparalleled fund raising reflects her singular resolve.

"She really works and probably overworks," he said. "She abhors failure."

For her part, Lopez said determination drove her fund raising.

"I made a decision," she said. "Not only was I going to run, I was going to win."

Lopez raised about twice as much as Republican rivals Rebecca Simmons ($185,798) and, in last year's race for the chief justice job, Paul Green ($148,959), according to TPJ.

But Lopez's margin of victory (2 percent) was much smaller than her fund-raising lead.

Green, who remains an associate justice on the 4th Court, said he believes his loss owed less to dollars than to Democratic turnout boosted by Tony Sanchez's race for governor. "I don't think money really made the difference in this case," he said.

Green, challenged the notion that campaign donations shape judicial decisions, that contributions amount to down payments on favorable rulings. In Lopez's race last year, the law firm Maloney & Maloney was her top donor, the study found.

A search of the database service LexisNexis revealed that Lopez has sided with the Maloney firm and with the related-by-blood firm of Pat Maloney 11 times since 1997. She ruled against them seven times.

Anthony Champagne, a University of Texas at Dallas political science professor who has written extensively about judicial races, cautioned that such numbers reveal little, because they don't show which cases were slam-dunks and which gave the judge some leeway to rule on either side.

Champagne, who has written extensively about judicial races, said he believes most lawyers who fund judicial campaigns do not expect to get key judgments in return. He said most want to elect someone they believe is likeminded. Or, he said, they want to buy good will that might later help them obtain small victories, like trial delays or more time to file motions.