Houston Chronicle
November 2, 1998

'Payola Justice' in Texas Revisited

Little has changed on Supreme Court in 11 years, TV report says

Houston Chronicle Austin Bureau

AUSTIN - A national television program, which questioned whether justice was for sale in Texas 11 years ago, revisited the issue Sunday night and said the same question still hovered over the Texas Supreme Court.
CBS-TVs 60 Minutes suggested that the only difference between justice in Texas now and justice in 1987 is the people wielding the influence.
The program, which targeted plaintiff lawyers and their contributions to judges in 1987, turned its cameras this time on doctors, insurance companies and other business interests, who have helped elect a conservative, defense-oriented court with millions of dollars in campaign donations of their own.
"This court seems to reward its highest donors," said Craig McDonald, executive director of Texans for Public Justice, which released an already well-publicized, controversial report on the high court earlier this year.
That report, entitled "Payola Justice," which has been vigorously attacked by the business community and defense lawyers, said seven Supreme Court justices elected since 1994 raised $3.7 million, or about 40 percent of their total, campaign cash, from lawyers and other parties linked to business on the court's docket.
Consumer advocate Walt Borges said consumers and other plaintiffs won 67 percent of the time before the high court in 1987, when plaintiffs' lawyers were the heaviest political donors to judges.
Now, doctors, insurance companies and other defendants are winning 69 percent of the time, Borges said.
Asked by correspondent Mike Wallace if the current members of the court were dishonest or unethical, Borges replied, "As individuals, no."
But Borges added: "The system is corrupt, and it leads to corrupt results. A tremendous amount of business and medical money was mobilized and used to elect a court that basically had a singular philosophy, and that was very pro-business, pro-defense."
Six of the nine Supreme Court justices, including Republican Greg Abbott, who is seeking re-election, said they oppose a "system that forces judges to raise campaign funds."
But a statement released by the justices said, "There is no link between contributions and outcomes, regardless what is said by paid operatives with political agendas."
Former Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice John Hill, who has campaigned unsuccessfully to change the partisan system of electing judges, told 60 Minutes the cost of winning election to the high court was "outrageous."
I think it's up to about $2 million on the average," Hill said.
He acknowledged that his defense-oriented law firm contributes to judicial candidates because he considers it a "civic responsibility."
And, he admitted signing a fundraising letter two years ago for Justice James A. Baker about the time Hill argued a case for a business client before the high court. Hill said the timing of the letter, which was reported then in the Texas media, was "lousy."
But, he added, Baker recused himself from the case.
"I really beg and implore the people of Texas to change the (judicial election) system. Pray for us that we'll be successful because it'll be a great day for Texas." Hill said.
Hill and all of the current members of the Supreme Court favor replacing the partisan election of judges with a system under which judges would be appointed by the governor and have to win periodic retention elections, without opponents, to keep their seats.
But Gov. George W. Bush and many leaders of both major parties oppose change, and the Legislature has refused to change the system.
Three years ago, lawmakers imposed modest limits on campaign contributions to judicial candidates, but the same law firm can still legally contribute as much as $30,000 to a judge and a political action committee can give as much as $300,000.
Bud Shivers, a spokesman for Texans for Lawsuit Reform, a civil justice reform group that has contributed heavily to defense-oriented justices, said he gave to Supreme Court candidates "because I think a fair and impartial judiciary is a bedrock of a civilized democracy."
But state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, who chairs a committee that has studied judicial reform, said most large contributors to judges "tend to be bottom-line oriented."
"You don't give campaign contributions just because it's a philanthropic endeavor," Ellis said.
No members of the Supreme Court were interviewed on camera. Several reportedly turned down requests by 60 Minutes.
And only one in four justices seeking re-election, on Tuesday, Democratic Justice Rose Spector, mentioned by name. The show included videotape of Spector campaigning.
Austin lawyer David Van Os, Democrat challenging Abbott, issued a statement that Texans "should be disgusted and embarrassed" at what was reported in the program.
Democratic attorney general nominee Jim Mattox also used the show to renew attacks against his Republican opponent, former Supreme Court Justice John Cornyn. However Cornyn spokeswoman Michele said Cornyn "had nothing to do with the program."