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Can A Judge Really Ignore $447,000 In Donations?

The Austin American-Statesman ran an interesting editorial piece recently about donations to Texas Supreme Court Justice Nathan Hecht’s legal defense fund. The donations were from lawyers and law firms, mostly those who represent big business interests. The editorial asks if Justice Hecht will be able to rule fairly now when those same lawyers appear before the Supreme Court. Here is the text of the editorial:

In a legal battle with the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, Justice Nathan Hecht actively solicited money from Texas lawyers and law firms who practice before his court to pay for his defense. As he reported this week to the Texas Ethics Commission, those law firms and lawyers gave him $447,000.

That’s 447,000 reasons to worry about Hecht’s objectivity when the donors bring their cases before him and the Supreme Court.

Hecht sought the financial help last year to battle the judicial conduct commission, which had issued a “public admonishment” against him. It ruled that he had violated the state’s judicial code of ethics in 2005 with his high profile advocacy of the nomination of Harriet Miers to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Asserting his First Amendment rights, Hecht appealed to a special three-member court, which overturned the admonishment.

To pay his substantial legal bills, Hecht tried two routes. The first was to get taxpayers to pay for it. But legislators who tried to help him by passing bills quit when they found out he was also asking for help in the form of campaign contributions. State law and a previous Ethics Commission ruling appear to allow candidates and officeholders to use campaign contributions for legal defense when it’s related to their public offices.

Some of the state’s biggest law firms — such as Vinson & Elkins and Baker Botts — responded, with contributions totaling at least $447,000.

Hecht says he “absolutely” will not be influenced in court rulings involving his contributors. However sincere and well-intended, though, Hecht cannot erase doubts that such contributions create.

Alex Winslow, executive director of Texas Watch, a consumer advocacy group and longtime critic of the court, asks a pertinent question: “Should a justice sit in judgment of someone who has contributed to his legal defense fund?”

Hecht says there is no difference, legally or otherwise, between giving a judicial candidate or a judge money to pay election expenses or to pay legal expenses on a matter related to his office. And Hecht notes that he has long argued for reforms in judicial selection.

So have we. Almost all judges and judicial candidates despise the need to ask for money to run for their offices.

But giving money to a judge to pay his or her legal bills is far more personal than for an election campaign. The lawyers and law firms who didn’t give to Hecht would not be unreasonable in fearing they were at a disadvantage when going up against those who did.

Hecht said he was “just gratified that people were willing to help.”

The question is: How do you show your gratitude to those who give you $447,000?

Bob Kraft

I am a Dallas, Texas lawyer who has had the privilege of helping thousands of clients since 1971 in the areas of Personal Injury law and Social Security Disability.

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