High court ruling may stir debate in TexasState's one of seven with partisan elections for judges
By MARY FLOOD Copyright 2009 Houston Chronicle
June 9, 2009
Judges should withdraw from cases involving major campaign contributors to avoid the appearance of bias, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday in an opinion that focuses light on a persistent problem in Texas politics.
Texas, sometimes a center of controversy over judicial campaign contributions, is one of only seven states that elect judges in partisan elections.
“The greater value of this case is to cause a national debate on choosing judges the same way we choose legislators,” said Tom Phillips, a former Harris County judge and chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court and a long-time advocate for merit selection of judges.
Phillips and others said Monday’s court decision in Caperton vs. A.T. Massey Coal is so narrowly drawn to cover an extreme case that it won’t in itself spark great change. But the many advocates for a change in the Texas judicial selection system, which come from both parties and both sides of civil disputes, say discussion of this case and future litigation to further define the boundaries may help the state move toward change. (Read the opinion here in a pdf file.)
By a 5-to-4 vote, the high court found that due process rights were violated when a West Virginia judge refused to take himself off a case involving a mining company whose executive had contributed $3 million to the judge’s campaign. The majority opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy said this was an extreme case in which someone with a personal stake in an ongoing case had a significant disproportionate influence through contributions.
Ruling called a challenge
The dissent said the decision didn’t explain the line where a judge should be recused and opens the door to further allegations of judicial bias and an erosion in public confidence in judicial impartiality.
“The Caperton decision challenges us to do more to remove the perception that judicial campaign contributions influence decisions in Texas courts. Caperton identified a core problem that exists in Texas even with expenditure limits,” said Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson in a news release referring to voluntary caps on spending that are generally followed by judicial candidates.
The voluntary rules limit statewide candidates to $5,000 from any lawyer or $30,000 from lawyers in any one law firm, but don’t govern special interest groups’ contributions and spending that favors judicial candidates.
Gerry Birnberg, chairman of the Harris County Democratic Party, said the court decision could cause people to give more money to parties and special interest groups.
“I think we can expect some litigation over contributions to specific judges too,” said Birnberg.
‘The can of worms’
Anthony Champagne, a University of Texas-Dallas professor who writes about Texas judicial campaigns, said he’s heard of requests for recusals for campaign contributions in Texas appellate courts, not in local trial courts.
He said a recusal request over contributions could hypothetically come up in a criminal court if a defense attorney made large contributions to the judge or in a family or juvenile court case.
“I can see this case as being the can of worms the dissenters are talking about,” Champagne said. He said he expects case after case to go to federal appellate courts.
Texans for Public Justice Director Craig McDonald said this case sets a precedent.
“Texas need not overhaul its troubled judicial-selection system immediately. Nonetheless, the court invites greater scrutiny — and more federal challenges — to determine when the corrupting influence of judicial campaign money violates the U.S. Constitution,” McDonald said.