Justice collects gifts to pay fees
By MAX B. BAKER
STAR-TELEGRAM STAFF WRITER
March 20, 2007
Texas Supreme Court Justice Nathan Hecht personally collected more than $300,000 in private donations from some of the state's top lawyers to pay his legal bills, prompting a state senator to say he is withdrawing his efforts to get the state to pick up the tab.
Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, said he would not have introduced a bill to pay Hecht's legal expenses if he had known that Hecht had raised the money himself.
"I was not given all the information I would have liked to have had," Wentworth said Monday in a telephone interview from Qatar, where he was part of Texas' contingent celebrating the opening of a new building for a branch of Texas A&M University.
"He is whole in paying his attorney fees, and that is why I'm not proceeding with the bill," he said.
Hecht, who successfully fought an ethics sanction over his efforts to speak out for his former law partner and onetime girlfriend, U.S. Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers, raised the money by sending out a solicitation letter that in some cases included a handwritten note at the bottom.
In a letter dated Feb. 3 that was obtained by the Star-Telegram, Hecht wrote a personal note asking for a $20,000 donation. On another, he asked for $5,000.
Hecht said recently that he has raised enough money to pay his $340,000 legal tab but that he believes the state should cover the cost. He said he will refund the money to the lawyers if the state pays.
"Here is the problem: If judges are sanctioned like this and it's unjust and it's wrong and they want to prove it, they can represent themselves or hire a lawyer that you can't pay for on a judge's salary," Hecht said.
"So, I can raise the money and be a sleazebag, or I don't raise the money and lose and I'm a sleazebag. So maybe that's not quite a fair system, even for judges."
Rep. Tony Goolsby, R-Dallas, the House sponsor of a bill to pay Hecht's legal fees, did not return a phone call seeking comment.
Hecht amassed the legal fees fighting an admonition from the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, which concluded that the justice had used his position to promote Miers' candidacy.
A three-judge panel sitting in Fort Worth overturned Hecht's admonition in October but did not fault the commission for taking action against Hecht. The panel said the state's code of judicial conduct lacks clarity and should be reviewed.
But in the fundraising letters, Hecht says that the commission misapplied Texas judicial ethics rules and that their decision to admonish him was "blatantly wrong." He also adds that Texas judges should not be "subjected to such abusive treatment by the commission." To remove this "dark blot" on his record, Hecht said, he hired Chip Babcock of Dallas, a lawyer who specializes in First Amendment issues. Babcock said he gave the judge a discount on some services.
In the bank
The Texas Ethics Commission has determined that judges can raise money to pay expenses in connection with the defense of judicial misconduct charges brought against them by the judicial conduct commission.
And nothing prevents a candidate from asking someone to donate a specific amount, said Tim Sorrells, the ethics commission's deputy general counsel.
In the Feb. 3 letter, Hecht writes that according to state law he can only raise money 120 days after an election and not again until the next election. He asks supporters to quickly make a donation by the March 1 deadline.
The justice said on some of the letters he did "scribble some note at the bottom of what it will take to get the money raised."
"If people don't give money, it's fine," Hecht said.
Hecht had only nominal opposition for the $150,000-a-year job in the November election and had only about $107,000 left in his campaign treasury by the end of the year, according to campaign finance reports.
The justice said he won't file a report on exactly how much he has raised until July, when the next campaign expense reports are due.
Andrew Wheat, a spokesman for Texans for Public Justice, a nonprofit judicial watchdog group, said it is troubling that Hecht is trying to raise money from lawyers who most likely have cases before his court while also asking taxpayers to pay his legal bill.
"It sounds like double-dipping to me," Wheat said. "He wants everybody to pay him for his pain. The lawyers in his courtroom, the taxpayers, too."
And while it's not unprecedented to recommend a contribution amount, Hecht's notes make any rejection of the recommended amount a personal matter, Wheat said.
"A justice asking for a specific amount, that is personal, making the rejection personal," Wheat said.
One lawyer who did not want to be identified as criticizing the senior member of the state's highest court said lawyers can't afford to turn Hecht down, saying it would be a "death wish" if a client had case before the court.
"I understand he can legally do what he is doing, but that doesn't make it right," the lawyer said.
Ralph Duggins, a Fort Worth lawyer, said he didn't agree with the judicial conduct commission's actions and didn't mind giving Hecht money for his legal defense.
"I was not bothered by the request," Duggins said. "He shouldn't have had to spend that kind of time and money on defending the case."
WHAT'S AT STAKE
Texas Supreme Court Justice Nathan Hecht owes at least $340,000 in legal fees from his successful defense against a judicial sanction.
WHAT HE WANTS
Hecht wants the state to pick up the tab, and two bills in Austin have been filed at his suggestion.
WHAT HE'S GOT
Hecht said he has collected enough in private donations from lawyers to cover the cost. He says he'll refund the donations if the state picks up the tab.
CAN HE DO IT?
The Texas Ethics Commission has determined that judges can raise money to pay expenses in connection with the defense of judicial misconduct charges brought against them by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct.