What the Hecht?Texas Supreme Court justice should recuse himself when a litigant helped pay the jurist's legal bills.
Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle
April 6, 2007
In 1992, Republicans won a majority on the nine-member Texas Supreme Court. The Republican battle cry was that Democratic justices were bought and paid for with campaign contributions from plaintiff's lawyers who argued cases before them.
While the partisan makeup of the state's final arbiter of civil law has changed, litigants' attempts to purchase favor with the court's members hasn't. The latest example is that of Justice Nathan Hecht, who accepted $16,000 in contributions from a political action committee largely bankrolled by Houston builder Bob Perry. The HillCo PAC donated the money to help cover Hecht's $340,000 legal expenses shortly before the Supreme Court was scheduled to hear Perry Homes' appeal of an $800,000 judgment. An arbitrator had awarded the damages to a couple who claimed their home was structurally deficient.
"It would be wholly inappropriate for Hecht to stand in judgment of someone who is paying his personal expenses," said Alex Winslow, head of the Austin-based consumer advocacy group Texas Watch. Hecht also received $5,000 in Perry contributions last year. The same could be said of the other eight Supreme Court justices, who over the years have received hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign donations from Perry or his PAC.
The latest funds collected by Justice Hecht went to cover his legal fees for disputing an admonition he received from the State Commission on Judicial Conduct. The commission ruled that that Hecht's support for Harriet Miers' unsuccessful nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court was improper. A three-judge panel later dismissed the reprimand. After legislators declined to have the state cover the bill, Hecht sought contributions from supporters and says he has collected enough money to pay the bill.
Hecht's solicitations for his legal bills violated no statutes, but neither did those campaign contributions by plaintiff's lawyers that Hecht and other Republican justices demonized previous Democratic officeholders for accepting. If lawyers' donations to judges buy influence, certainly the same can be said of money from interested parties with cases before the court.
In fact, the latest example is even more questionable, since the money to pay Justice Hecht's personal legal expenses was not given during a campaign, but came weeks before a hearing involving the contributor. If the jurist has any sense of propriety, he will recuse himself from the Perry Homes case and also make public the list of donors who have covered his legal tab.
Until the system of choosing Texas judges through partisan elections is changed, suspicions and allegations of purchased justice will continue, whether the incumbents are Democrats or Republicans. Texas needs a system involving merit selection-retention elections, but reform is no closer now than when it was first advocated years ago. Likewise, lawmakers have declined to impose tough restrictions on campaign contributions to prevent litigants and lawyers from contributing to the campaigns of those who sit in judgment on their cases.
Until such reforms are made, Texans must depend on the ethics and good sense of the judges. In taking Perry's money while the homebuilder has a case before the court, Justice Hecht let the people down.