Lawsuit challenges anonymity of votes to hear casesBy JIM VERTUNO, The Associated Press
When the Texas Supreme Court decides a case, the name of the justice who writes the opinion and those supporting and disagreeing with the decision are listed publicly. But exactly how the cases get that far isn't quite as open. The court doesn't list how the justices vote in deciding whether to even hear a case.
Critics of the system say it raises questions about the influence of campaign donors _ specifically big law firms _ who may bring their cases to the court. On Friday, U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia in San Antonio will hear arguments in a lawsuit that seeks to force the court to disclose who votes for and against hearing a case. The state is seeking to have the lawsuit dismissed.
"Secret justice is not acceptable," said Cris Feldman of Texans for Public Justice, one of the groups seeking the change.
Texans for Public Justice has been highly critical of court practices in recent years and has questioned the influence of politics and campaign contributions over the state's highest civil court.
Before the court hears a case, four of the nine justices must agree to accept a litigant's "petition for review." According to Texans for Public Justice, the court gets about 900 submissions a year and typically accepts just over 10 percent.
Chief Justice Tom Phillips said revealing the vote on whether to hear a case could mislead the public into believing it's an indication of how the court would ultimately rule. "A vote to grant (a case) says nothing about what the law is," Phillips said. "This is not a decision on the merits. This is whether or not this is a case that's importance for jurisprudence." The court does not take a formal vote on whether to accept or reject a case, Phillips said. "There's not a roll-call vote," he said. "We try to reach these decisions by consensus." A detailed announcement of every decision would slow an already busy court, Phillips said. The justices are allowed to individually announce what they wanted to do with a case, although they rarely do.
The Texas Supreme Court system is identical to the U.S. Supreme Court, said Phillips. He questioned whether the federal courts will want to pry into the state court's practices. "I don't think this rises to constitutional magnitude," he said.
The plaintiffs argue that the lawsuit is not asking the court to open its deliberations, just to give an accounting of its decisions. They insist that because the justices are elected, they must provide an extensive public record.
"The court has no justification for its secrecy," said Bonnie Tenneriello, an attorney for the National Voting Rights Institute. "The fact that Texas justices receive large campaign contributions makes it even more important that the justices' decisions be transparent."
Phillips, who has advocated constitutional changes to make the court an appointed panel instead of an elected one, said campaign contributions hold no sway over the court. "Its unfortunate we have partisan, high-dollar elections," Phillips said. "Nonetheless, our function remains the same."