Texas Supreme Court races tap lots of cashDemocrats make biggest effort in years to unseat GOP justices
By CLAY ROBISON
Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle Austin Bureau
AUSTIN — The philosophical battle lines for this fall's Texas Supreme Court races are clearly drawn.
On one side are three Republican incumbent justices heavily funded by lawyers and litigants — mostly from the corporate, insurance and medical communities — who regularly have business before the panel and often win.
On the other are three Democratic challengers taking significant political contributions from plaintiffs' attorneys trying to regain a toehold on the court they once controlled.
And it's all legal, the product of a frequently maligned partisan election system that the Legislature has refused to change.
"The evidence that justice is for sale at the Supreme Court continues to grow," said Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice.
The group, a longtime critic of the court and its political donors, recently compiled a report showing that the six Republicans and Democrats vying for court seats on Nov. 4 took two-thirds of the $2.3 million they collectively raised from January 2007 through June from lawyers and litigants who recently have had interests at stake before the court. The candidates have raised more money since, but those donations haven't yet been analyzed.
As the state's highest civil court, the Supreme Court has the final say on lawsuits pitting consumers against doctors, businesses and insurance companies as well as those pitting corporations against each other. It also is the last stop in the Texas court system for lawsuits challenging state policies.
Incumbents and challengers alike deny they have been or will be swayed by campaign donations.
They say they know how to separate political support from decision-making.
"You just do it. I'm not saying the public will understand it," said Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson, one of the Republicans seeking re-election.
"What makes this job fun for me is that I get to make an independent judgment in each case," he added, noting that he has ruled against political contributors.
Jefferson said it would be better if Texas judges didn't run in partisan elections, but he has little hope the Legislature will change the system. Repeated efforts in recent years have failed.
So, Jefferson said, he has to raise money to put his name and campaign message before voters because most people pay little attention to the court, despite the importance of its work.
The political money "is not helping me buy a house. But I will be writing a big check for media (TV spots)," he said.
Jefferson is opposed by Democrat Jim Jordan, a state district judge from Dallas, and Libertarian Tom Oxford of Beaumont.
Justice Dale Wainwright, a former state district judge from Houston, faces challenges from Democrat Sam Houston, a lawyer from Houston, and Libertarian David G. Smith of Henderson.
Justice Phil Johnson, a former Air Force pilot, decorated Vietnam veteran and longtime lawyer and appellate judge from West Texas, is seeking re-election against Democrat Linda Reyna Yanez, an appellate judge from Edinburg, and Libertarian Drew Shirley of Austin.
Republicans have held all seats on the nine-member court, the state's highest civil court, since 1998. This is the Democrats' most ambitious effort in several years to recapture some seats, but they still trail the Republican justices in the money chase.
According to Texans for Public Justice, the three Republican incumbents — Jefferson, Wainwright and Johnson — received an average of 65 percent of their campaign contributions through June 30 from lawyers and litigants who have had motions or interests in cases before the high court since 2005.
Through June 30, the three justices had raised more than $1.5 million, with Jefferson raising $661,000 of that.
Their major contributors included defense-oriented law firms, insurers and other businesses and tort reform groups favoring limits on civil lawsuits and judgments.
Texans for Public Justice didn't attempt to link individual contributions to lawsuit outcomes. But other studies have shown that the Supreme Court, since the Republican takeover, has sided with doctors, insurance companies and other corporate defendants in the vast majority of lawsuits brought by consumers.
Trailing GOP candidates
Through June 30, the Democratic challengers — Jordan, Houston and Yanez — had collectively raised $722,000, about half of the Republicans' total. Some 69 percent came from lawyers or other people who had business before the court over the past three years.
Many of the challengers' major contributors include plaintiffs' lawyers, a traditional source of Democratic funding who, for several years, had written off most Supreme Court races as lost causes. Now, they have resumed writing checks.
Jordan said he dislikes the partisan election system and the fundraising and, if elected to the high court, will work actively to persuade the Legislature to scrap it.
"I don't see any evidence that the current court is working for reforms," he said, adding that he doesn't accept money from lawyers and parties with cases before him in district court and has returned some contributions.
Yanez, who has been on the 13th Court of Appeals since 1993, said she also dislikes the partisan election system and the "necessary evil of having to raise money." But reform is thwarted by more than just a reluctant Legislature, she said.
Voters favor electing judges
Changing the judicial selection system would require a constitutional amendment, which also would have to be approved by Texas voters, and polls have indicated in the past that people want to keep electing judges.
Houston, who isn't descended from the Texas hero of the same name, said the problem isn't the election system.
"I actually believe in democracy, and I believe in a partisan system," he said. "But it works better when you have both parties represented. The problem with the Supreme Court is there's only one party."
Houston has received financial support from some plaintiffs' lawyers, including three — John O'Quinn of Houston and Walter Umphrey and Wayne Reaud of Beaumont — who got part of the $3.3 billion in legal fees awarded for their work on the state's anti-tobacco settlement 10 years ago.
But Houston said most of his work has been defending doctors against plaintiffs in medical malpractice suits. His law firm, Cruse Scott Henderson & Allen, also a major campaign donor, practices both defense and plaintiffs' law.
Wainwright and Johnson were unavailable for comment, but both promise independence on their campaign Web sites.
"Our great task is to interpret and apply the Constitution and laws as written, fairly and consistently without fear or favor," Wainwright says.
Johnson vows to "strictly interpret and apply the law as written, regardless of personal views or the parties involved."