The Dallas Morning News published an editorial today regarding the credibility problem of our current Texas Supreme Court. The newspaper is definitely right in saying the Court has a credibility problem, but the paper is misinformed in one of its statements, and in my opinion is wrong in its suggested solution.
The misinformation is in the statement that “Texas trial lawyers who argue directly before the justices also have been huge contributors.” The implication is that plaintiff lawyers are contributing to the justices. This may have been true in the past, but I don’t think there are many plaintiff lawyers now who would even consider making a contribution to any of the nine sitting Republican justices.
The newspaper’s conclusion that the best solution to the current problem would be appointed justices is, again in my opinion, simply wrong. This would be dangerously close to the federal judicial system of appointments for life. And while there are many fine federal judges, there are some who never should have been appointed, and who will never leave the bench.
The correct solution is fair and open elections, with full disclosure of campaign contributions, combined with an educated electorate who understand the influence that campaign contributions can have on judges’ legal opinions. Full public financing of judicial elections would be even better.
Here is the text of the editorial:
The reputation of our state’s judiciary has been tarnished for years. As then-state Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Phillips told the Legislature all the way back in 2001, when judges owe their jobs to an electoral system dominated by political parties and big campaign donors, their judicial objectivity comes into question.
Nothing underscores this point better than the May 2 Texas Supreme Court decision favoring Perry Homes over homeowners Jane and Robert Cull. The court’s decision, overturning two lower courts’ rulings to compensate the Culls for a defective home, probably will be debated for years.
But what isn’t debatable is that the founder of Perry Homes, Bob Perry, is a major donor to the campaigns of the Supreme Court’s justices. He, his family and their political action committees have donated more than
$250,000 to the nine justices – all Republicans – including those who dissented in the Cull case.
The justices may have used flawless legal analysis in ruling against the Culls. That’s not the point. In the public’s eye, their decision is tainted by the fact that they owe their elected positions, at least in part, to Mr. Perry.
He isn’t the only big donor with business before the court. Texas trial lawyers who argue directly before the justices also have been huge contributors.
And to add to the credibility problem, three Supreme Court justices are fending off allegations that they abused their campaign funds. And a report yesterday by the judicial watchdog group Texas Watch criticized the court for relying too heavily on anonymous opinions, which effectively reduces the panel’s public accountability.
The method of electing Texas judges – from the Supreme Court all the way down – is badly in need of modernization. Campaign donations from special interests should have no place in an independent judiciary.
The state needs a system in which the governor appoints judicial nominees by merit, with Senate confirmation, and voters regularly decide whether or not to retain them. That would help remove partisan politics and make court decisions less suspect.
That’s one of several options put forth by Mr. Phillips in 2001. His argument made sense then, and it’s no less valid today.