February 06, 2008
Endorsement watch: The DMN on the Supreme Court

The Chron took Tuesday off from endorsements, but the Dallas Morning News had a twofer from the Democratic primaries for State Supreme Court. In Place 7, they recommended Sam Houston:

[W]e're comfortable recommending Houston attorney Sam Houston, whose law partnership and background in business-related legal affairs equips him for the types of cases that dominate the Supreme Court's docket.

Meanwhile, his opponent, Dallas attorney Baltasar D. Cruz, displays a shocking penchant for verbosity. If he were to win a judicial seat, we worry that his difficulty keeping statements brief and focused would threaten to overwhelm a court already facing a significant backlog.

Where Mr. Cruz expounds at convoluted length to seemingly simple questions, Mr. Houston responds with clarity, thoughtfulness and brevity.

Mr. Houston also has an impressive list of high-profile endorsements, and his campaign war chest - $111,650 vs. Mr. Cruz's $2,500 - shows he is prepared for a statewide race.

Here's the Q&A I did with Sam Houston, and with Baltasar Cruz. I can't say I disagree with the DMN's assessment here. I thought both Cruz and Houston came across well when I heard them speak to the Harris County Democratic Lawyers Association last month, but I also think Houston is clearly the better candidate, and I'll be casting my vote for him.

And in Place 8, they go for Linda Yanez.

As impressed as we are with both candidates, the well-considered and cautious responses we received from Justice Linda R. Yanez convinced us that she's the better-suited candidate for this job. The Supreme Court is no place for showboaters, and our concern with Galveston District Court Judge Susan Criss, 46, is that she might be too outspoken for a position that requires justices to measure their words.

Justice Yanez, 59, of Edinburg, was first appointed to the 13th Court of Appeals by then-Gov. Ann Richards and has since won election three times to the post, making her the court's senior justice. She holds a noteworthy list of honors and awards as a trail-blazing Hispanic lawyer and judge, including serving on President Bill Clinton's transition team.

Judge Criss has an impressive record in Galveston, particularly handling the ongoing court cases related to the 2005 BP refinery explosion in Texas City. She speaks frankly about her involvement in the case and her disagreement with the Supreme Court's decision to overturn one of her earlier BP rulings.

That's problematic, since her comments concern a still-pending case. She boasts about being known as the "blogging judge," even though it seems to be of dubious advisability for any judge to maintain an active blog on judicial and legal matters.

Just as troubling is a failure to closely monitor the blog. We checked it out, only to find the blog empty. Asked about it, Judge Criss said she was not aware there was a problem; she found out later that her Web manager had dismantled it without telling her.

Overall, we felt that Justice Yanez has a tighter grasp of the law and projects the more disciplined judicial demeanor, qualities that are mandatory for someone seeking a seat on the state Supreme Court.

My Q&A with Judge Criss is here; I have one from Judge Yanez in the queue and will publish it next week. I've known Judge Criss for several years, and plan to vote for her in the primary. I agree with the DMN that both candidates are well qualified, and I'm very glad that the Democrats will have all three Supreme Court ballot slots filled, rather than have one of these two talented candidates be forced to the sidelines while a race goes uncontested.

Now for the big question: Will the DMN support any of these candidates (plus Dallas judge Jim Jordan, running unopposed for the Chief Justice seat) for election in November? They went with Bill Moody in 2006, as so many other papers did, but that was an easy choice, given Moody's extensive experience, and Don Willet's lack of same. I'm hopeful for this time around, but we'll see. What do you think?

Posted by Charles Kuffner on February 06, 2008 to Election 2008

I don't know if any of the big papers will endorse the challengers. None of the incumbents who are up in 2008 have the ethical issues that some of the other justices are facing. And none of them is a particularly bad judge. Jefferson, in fact, is an outstanding judge but not an outstanding administrator. There are things he could do to make the court work harder but he doesn't have the age or experience to assert himself as he ought.

That said, there needs to be change on the court for good of the state of Texas. Each of the Dem challengers, I think, is making the point that any court of 9 people works best when there's a diversity of views. I think it's Justice Yanez who's used the word "groupthink" in her criticism of the court's decisions. When you have nine R's on a court, you're not going to have the diversity of opinions that you need to protect the rights of consumers and injured people.

Bottom line for me is that the justices up for reelection are not the worst judges on the court, but there needs to be change for the public good. I'm also hopeful, and will wait to see if any editorial boards for the major papers focus only on individual qualifications or also on the broader view.

Posted by: Jeff N. on February 6, 2008 10:37 AM

It is indeed Judge Yanez who criticizes the "group-think" on the supreme court. She's very smart, and I'm sure she's making this point to the papers. Here's a link to her critique: http://lindayanez.com/content/page/id/175

Posted by: Jeff N. on February 6, 2008 11:54 AM


You say "None of the incumbents who are up in 2008 have the ethical issues that some of the other justices are facing. And none of them is a particularly bad judge."

I cannot agree.

Linda Yanez's use of campaign funds to pay for meals for campaign volunteers. This has been documented and it is an ethical issue (or at least a judgment issue).

Criss's problems run even deeper. Here is an article that appeared in a Washington DC newspaper>/a>:

"A good example is the hundreds of thousands of dollars plaintiffs� lawyers are stuffing into the campaign coffers of Galveston District Judge Susan Criss, who is running for the Texas Supreme Court. The bulk of Criss� campaign contributions come from plaintiffs� lawyers who have business before her court, namely personal injury lawsuits against BP stemming from a 2005 refinery explosion. Draw your own conclusions."

Here is a similar complaint from a South East Texas newspaper:
"We only can speculate why a horde of plaintiff's lawyers with cases currently pending before Criss, who is running for Texas' Supreme Court, felt compelled to stuff tens of thousands of dollars into her campaign.

But thanks to the wonders of electronic campaign finance disclosure and the Internet, we now know that it is so. Voters can draw their own conclusions.

At issue is what Criss does when she isn't on the campaign trail. In her day job seated on the District Court in Galveston, currently she is presiding over hundreds of potentially lucrative personal injury lawsuits against oil giant BP stemming from the 2005 explosion at its Texas City refinery.

Of the more than $260,000 Criss reported raised for the campaign in the last six months of 2007, almost all came from South Texas plaintiff's lawyers. Many of them are the same ones who have been aggressively courting and cultivating those BP cases assigned to her Galveston court.

Among Judge Criss' most loyal supporters are BP-focused plaintiff's outfits including Williams Kherker ($25,000), Burwell Burwell & Nebout ($10,750), the Krist Law Firm ($10,000), Bailey Perrin Bailey ($7,500), and the Alexander Law Firm ($5,000).

All of the above have filed more than a few cases against the company. If we believe their marketing rhetoric, they remain on the hunt for Texas City plaintiffs.

Here's the rub: more than any other member of the Texas bench, Judge Criss' management of her BP cases promises to have a serious impact on the eventual 'value' of all BP explosion lawsuits against the company."

It is simply inaccurate to imply that Republican judicial candidates have ethical problems while the Democratic candidates do not. No one has alleged any scandal about Phil Johnson, who is a Republican but a fair minded judge.

Posted by: Conservative Democrat on February 7, 2008 2:07 PM

CD, you protest too much. My point was that the incumbent justices who are running for re-election to the Supreme Court are not facing charges about their ethics, as other incumbents are. I agree that Justice Johnson is fair-minded and scandal-free.

The spectrum of judges on the court now is too narrow. I'm not calling on you to vote against Justice Johnson, just suggesting that the Court would be a better one if it included judges from both parties.

Posted by: Jeff N. on February 11, 2008 2:11 PM