Texas Supreme Court candidates rake in contributions

By Chris Rizo | Oct 20, 2008

Craig McDonald

Wallace Jefferson (R)

Dale Wainwright (R)

Phil Johnson (R)

AUSTIN, Texas (Legal Newsline) - Candidates for seats on the Texas Supreme Court are raking in campaign cash from likely sources, a judicial watchdog group told Legal Newsline on Monday.

The three Republican incumbent justices have received much of their campaign cash from the corporate world, while their three Democratic challengers have collected much of their campaign cash from trial lawyers, hoping to build a more plaintiff-friendly high court.

The nonpartisan group Texans for Public Justice says in a report that the six candidates for the Supreme Court who are vying for a new six-year term took in 65 percent of the $2.3 million they collectively raised from January 2007 through June from lawyers and litigants who have recently had a stake in the court's decisions.

From January 2005 until July 2008, 4,295 different case filings were active before the Supreme Court. The report found that 40 percent of these cases were "tainted" because the three justices handling them received at least one contribution from a lawyer or litigant involved in that case.

"Voters or citizens in Texas don't have much confidence in the judicial system," Texans for Public Justice Executive Director Craig McDonald told Legal Newsline. "The wrap is that justice is for sale in Texas, and this report doesn't do anything to dispel that."

On the Nov. 4 ballot are: Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson, who is being opposed by Democrat Jim Jordan, a state judge from Dallas, and Libertarian Tom Oxford of Beaumont; Justice Dale Wainwright, who is being challenged by Democrat Sam Houston, a lawyer from Houston, and Libertarian David Smith of Henderson; and Justice Phil Johnson, who is being opposed by Democrat Linda Reyna Yanez, an appellate judge, and Libertarian Drew Shirley of Austin.

Texans for Public Justice says the three Republican justices -- Jefferson, Wainwright and Johnson -- received an average of 65 percent of their campaign contributions through June 30 from lawyers and litigants who have had interests or cases before the Supreme Court since 2005.

Their top contributors included insurance companies, corporate defense law firms with heavy Supreme Court dockets and tort reform groups, including Texans for Lawsuit Reform, which all together gave the justices' campaigns $22,500 as of June 30.

Meanwhile, the Democratic challengers -- Jordan, Houston and Yanez -- had collectively raised $722,000 as of June 30, with 69 percent coming from attorneys or people who had matters before the court since 2005.

The Democratic candidates raised money primarily from trial lawyers, including Walter Umphrey and Wayne Reaud of Beaumont, who made millions of dollars in legal fees from their work on the state's tobacco settlement a decade ago.

"Despite differences between the top contributors to the Republican incumbents (led by corporate defense firms) and their Democratic challengers (featuring plaintiff attorneys), both sides took approximately two-thirds of their political funds from contributors with business before the court," the report said.

Austin-based Texans for Public Justice has proposed the merit selection for Supreme Court justices where the governor would appoint justices from a list of nominees. The justices would then face retention votes after some time on the high court.

"Any reform that takes money out of the courtroom today is a reform we are supportive of though our ideal is a retention election after gubernatorial appointment," McDonald said.

While not disputing the report, Texans for Lawsuit Reform recently released a statement about TPJ.

"Texans for Public Justice is a front group for wealthy Texas trial lawyers who want to regain control of the Texas Legislature," the statement said. "TPJ does not make all their funding sources public, which should be a red flag for anyone tempted to trust their information."

From Legal Newsline: Reach reporter Chris Rizo at chrisrizo@legalnewsline.com.

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