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Endorsement watch: More court action

The Statesman has some things to say about the current makeup of the Supreme Court.

Three of the nine seats on the Texas Supreme Court are up for election this year, and all three have Republican incumbents facing competent Democratic challengers. Most voters probably have little idea about just who the court’s justices are, and that’s not only because of the usual obscurity of the court. It’s also because these nine, all Republicans, think pretty much alike. It’s time for a change.

The principal criticism of the court, which handles only civil cases, has been its uniformity in ruling for business in cases where it is pitted against consumers or workers.

By one measure, a study by University of Texas law professor David Anderson of the court’s 2004 and 2005 tort cases in which the court issued an opinion, the defendant — usually a business — won 87 percent of the time. While the court should not be expected to rule 50-50 in such cases, 87 percent suggests that justice isn’t blind at the Texas Supreme Court.

A good example of the court’s tilt toward business was its 9-0 ruling in the Entergy case, which for the first time protected plant owners from negligence lawsuits when contracts workers were injured on the job. To reach that ruling the court had to ignore years of settled practice on that very point in Texas, as well as legislative intent. Facing a storm of criticism, the court has agreed to reconsider the ruling.

In another case, the court ruled 6-3 in a case that a Colleyville church could not be held liable for harm to a young woman held down for two hours against her will to free her of a demon. Constitutional protection for religious liberty, the majority said, protected the church.

Yes, these problems, not to mention the ethical and legal issues some other Justices, none of which are on the ballot this year, have finally been getting some of the attention they deserve. And the Statesman puts its money where its mouth is:

Place 7 – Texans are so used to candidates of dubious qualification but well-known name running for public office that they might automatically dismiss someone named Sam Houston, 45, a Democrat who is challenging the Republican incumbent for this seat, Dale Wainwright, 47.

But voters should take this Houston — no relation to the original — seriously enough to vote for him. From Houston, Houston is a trial lawyer with broad litigation experience and a critic of the Supreme Court, which he says needs more balance.

Wainwright has a terrific resume and is personally impressive, but his output has been light compared to the other justices.

[…]

Place 8 — Linda Yanez, 60, a Democrat on the state’s 13th Court of Appeals, based in Corpus Christi, is challenging the incumbent, Phil Johnson, 63, a former chief justice of the 7th Court of Appeals at Amarillo.

Yanez, too, says the court needs to go more to the middle, and her up-from-the-bootstraps personal story would bring a useful perspective to a court dominated by the products of big law firms.

They didn’t go for a sweep but had some nice things to say about Judge Jim Jordan as they endorsed Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson. For those of you keeping score at home, the Statesman and the Caller-Times have endorsed both Houston and Yanez, the Chron endorsed Yanez but not Houston, the DMN endorsed Houston but not Yanez, and the Star-Telegram went for all incumbents. I have not seen anything from the Express News as yet.

On a side note, in a race that’s not otherwise on my radar but has taken on statewide implications, the Statesman weighs in on the Chief Justice, Third Court of Appeals race:

In 2002, Kenneth Law, an associate district judge specializing in family law cases, decided at the last minute to file as a candidate in the Republican primary race for chief justice of the 3rd Court of Appeals. He won the primary and went on to win the election. Now he’s up for re-election on Nov. 4 — but voters should replace him with his challenger, Woodie Jones, an experienced appeals court judge and appellate lawyer.

The 2002 victory was something of a fluke for Law. His only primary opponent was Justice Lee Yeakel, who was so highly thought of in the legal community that no one filed in the Democratic primary.

While Law was not well known in the 3rd Court’s 24-county district, which stretches from Austin to San Angelo, he had a good ballot name and defeated Yeakel — and ran unopposed in the general election.

Law, 60, is not a bad man. But he’s proven ineffective and he has presided over a court that has become all too politicized as Republicans have won a 4 to 2 majority on the six-member court.

Case in point: Law was one of three justices, all Republicans, who recently volunteered, in a case involving Republican defendants, that a money-laundering law did not apply to checks, only cash — a conclusion that defies common sense but appears to open a huge loophole for the defendants to leap through. The ruling came only after the court had studied the case for two years.

Jones, 59, Law’s Democratic challenger, served on the 3rd Court for about 12 years. He lost in the 2000 tide of Republican voting to David Puryear.

Citing figures from the state’s Office of Court Administration, Jones lays out a compelling case that Law has not provided leadership or productivity to a court that has developed a serious backlog.

“The chief justice is supposed to crack the whip, to some extent,” Jones said. While Law cannot be blamed for all of the court’s backlog, Jones said, “He himself is the slowest producer.”

In its poll of lawyers in the district, the State Bar of Texas reports, 1,427 voted for Jones while 249 backed Law. Asked about the poll, Law dismissed it — but acknowledged that he would be touting it if it had gone his way.

Jones’ extensive court and appellate experience and his record of fairness, regardless of party, stand out. We strongly recommend that voters elect Jones as chief justice of the 3rd Court of Appeals.

Knowing Law’s limited background and lack of respect from the legal community explains a lot about that bizarre “checks aren’t cash” decision. Whatever ultimately happens in that case, I hope we can get a correction to the court here. BOR has more.

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