Austin American-Statesman
November 3, 1998

Justice is still for sale,
but with new buyers


When the CBS news program "60 Minutes" asked Sunday night if justice was still for sale in Texas, it got the same answer it got when it asked in 1987. Yes it is, only the players have changed.
Reporter Mike Wallace learned that Texas' system of electing Supreme Court judges is still flawed, polluted by money and politics. Texas is one of only eight states that still choose Supreme Court judges by partisan election.
That system forces judges to ask for campaign contributions - money - from the lawyers and law firms tha practice before the judges, with active cases before the court. This "arms race" for cash is a failing that taints the court no matter who sits on it.
Wallace and "60 Minutes" didn't find anything in Texas that hasn't been reported and commented on in the Austin American-Statesman and elsewhere. Texas knows its system of judicial selection is exploited. But Gov. George W. Bush and the state Legislature haven't found the gumption to end this travesty.
The 1987 CBS report focused on the power of plaintiff's attorneys to buy justice in Texas. The trial lawyers who raised millions of dollars for judges won two-thirds of their cases before the Supreme Court.
Today, the opposite is true. The defending businesses and corporations win most of the time. Insurance companies win about 80 percent of the time, according to Walt Borges of Texas Citizen Action. CBS concluded that justice is still for sale in Texas, but the buyers and sellers are different.
The court and Legislature tried half-heartedly to limit the influence of politics and money after the embarrassing episode of "60 Minutes" in 1987. It didn't work.
Judges have narrowed the time in which they accept contributions, and individual contributions are now limited to $5,000. But law firms can still give $30,000 to a judicial candidate, and political action committees can give $300,000. In fact, Chief Justice Tom Phillips, who ran for the court using the first "60 Minutes" segment as ammunition, now has the record for the most money ever raised in a Texas judicial race.
Few suggest that the individuals on the Texas Supreme Court are corrupt. But the system they have to submit to in order to reach the bench is. And it will be corrupt until the politics and the money are removed from the judicial selection process.
The partisan election of judges who accept money from the lawyers and businesses with cases before them makes a mockery of justice. Texas needs to change its system of judicial selection as soon as possible.
Justice is too important to be considered for sale to the highest bidder.