Once again, our State Supreme Court is in the news, and once again, it's not for anything good.
At a time when the Texas Supreme Court's case backlog has reached record levels, Justice Paul Green was spending Friday driving to Corpus Christi to speak to a group of appeals lawyers.
"It's 40 (degrees) and raining and I'm driving four hours to Corpus Christi," Green said from his cell phone. "Yes, I've got stuff to do at the office, but some of us like to do this."
Green, who wrote the fewest opinions -- four -- of the high court's nine justices during the 2007 fiscal year, said he thinks it's important to get out of the office and talk about the court's work.
"If all of a sudden I said I'll just stay in my chambers and work on opinions, I don't think people would like that," Green said, adding that he has a "bunch of cases" that are ready to be issued.
Jim Jordan, a Democrat who is challenging Republican Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson, has a different opinion.
He said Green needs to take care of the court's business before he travels to "schmooze" with lawyers. When parties in a legal dispute get to the Supreme Court, they already have been through an expensive and time-consuming trial and appeals process, said Jordan, a Dallas County trial judge.
"Texans don't need to be told they need to take a number and get in line and wait," Jordan said. "These kinds of delays create a distrust in the legal system."
At the end of 2007, the court left more cases pending than ever before. The court had heard arguments but not issued rulings in 111 cases, including 36 that were more than a year old and 13 others more than 2 years old.
Jefferson said he's concerned about the backlog but denied it's because the justices aren't working hard. He said the court disposed of a record number of cases last year, but also accepted more cases for review, a trend since 2005.
Although lawyers who appeal cases to the high court may be reluctant to criticize its slowness for fear of hurting their clients, the legal community has taken notice.
Mary Alice Robbins, an Austin-based reporter for the weekly newspaper Texas Lawyer, wrote in December that the Supreme Court members should get the "Justices Delayed Award" for taking almost four years to issue an unsigned opinion compelling arbitration for two couples who accused their homebuilder of failing to install shower pans.
I don't think that the offenses here qualify as egregious. Indeed, the Legislature may want to take a look at whether to allow reimbursement of appellate judges who wish to live in a place other the city where the court on which they sit is located, provided that the reimbursement comes from public funds rather than campaign funds. (If a commuting trip also involves a political appearance, the reimbursement should come from campaign funds.)
The larger concern is that the judges did not make sufficient effort to investigate the legality of their conversion of sizable sums of money from their contributors. They used campaign funds to subsidize their lifestyle. Judges should be held to the highest standard of ethics. Let me rephrase that. Judges should hold themselves to the highest standard of ethics. But the judges on the Texas Supreme Court do not have to worry about how they are perceived, because there is no accountability. The judges are bulletproof. All of them are Republicans. While Democrats have had some electoral success in courthouse and legislative races, they haven't won a statewide election since 1994. Republican judges have little to fear at election time because they are protected by TLR and the big firms with the big clients who always win -- BP being the most recent example. The Court is consistently criticized for being result-oriented at legal conferences, but there is no incentive for judges to change their behavior, either in their decisions or in their ethics, and there won't be until somebody loses a race.