David Yates Feb. 28, 2014, 3:21pm

HOUSTON (Legal Newsline) - While many contend Republicans and tort reform go hand-in-hand, one influential Texas businessman says the GOP challengers running against the incumbent Texas Supreme Court justices are not pro-tort reform.

On Thursday, Hugh Kelly, co-founder of Texans for Lawsuit Reform, addressed a group of business leaders, political affiliates and tort reform allies at the Houston Club, telling the attendees he became a "lifelong tort reformer" following a bad experience with the Texas Supreme Court three decades ago, when the court was run by Democrats.

"These three candidates (running for the Texas Supreme Court) are not tort reformers - they do not stand for traditional conservative principals," Kelly added.

In the coming March 4 Republican primary, Chief Justice Nathan Hecht will square off against Robert Talton, a former state representative. Justice Phil Johnson will face appellate Justice Sharon McCally, and Justice Jeff Brown will go against Joe Pool.

The forum, hosted by Texans Against Lawsuit Abuse and TLR, focused on the history of the Supreme Court in Texas and what's at stake in the primary elections.

Other guest panelists included former Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Tom Phillips, state Rep. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, and state. Rep. Rick Miller, R-Sugar Land. Marilyn Tennissen, editor of the Southeast Texas Record, moderated the event.

As previously reported, the Republican candidates challenging the incumbents have received the bulk of their donations from plaintiffs attorney Mark Lanier and attorneys with connections to his firm, the Lanier Law Firm in Houston.

However, Phillips, while addressing the crowd, said Lanier "doesn't bother him all that much," as the prominent attorney "is a truly a Republican" and votes in Republican primaries.

Phillips said what concerned him most were liberal-funded attack ads aimed at the current high court justices.

Most recently, Texans for Justice, a liberal funded group focused on dethroning the current Supreme Court justices up for re-election, issued a press release stating that more Republican voters would choose Talton over Hecht after learning about the chief justice's record.

Keeping in step with the other panelists, Miller added that current justices up for re-election embrace the law written by the Legislature.

"I hate the word interpret. The biggest problem is when judges start interpreting the law," he said. "I think we (the Texas legislature) write the law clearly."

Once deemed the "litigation capitol of the world," Texas has become a business model for other states, in part due to its continuous tort reform legislation and the judges who uphold those laws, Creighton said.

Rep. Creighton told the attendees the decisions the Texas Supreme Court makes ripple throughout the state.

From Legal Newsline: Reach David Yates at elections@legalnewsline.com.

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