Donors Said to Get Easier Access to Texas High Court
Lawyers who back election campaigns tend to get their cases heard, a study says
The National Law Journal
April 30, 2001
who contribute to the election campaigns of Texas supreme court justices
get their cases disproportionately accepted for review, a judicial watchdog
In an April 24 report called "How Big Money Buys Access to the Texas Supreme Court," the Austin-based Texans for Public Justice published data from 1994 through 1998 on cases in which only one side sought a hearing from the high court.
The court accepted 11 percent of all such petitions. But it was four times as likely to accept one filed by a contributor than one filed by a noncontributor – 20 percent compared with 5.5 percent -- the group said.
The organization said that the more money the lawyers and firms gave, the greater the rate of acceptance by the court. Baker Botts, one of two firms that contributed more than $250,000, had an acceptance rate of 74 percent.
"It's not simply an appearance of impropriety; this report documents the role of special-interest money in the Texas high court by finding an undeniable correlation -- consciously or not," Cristen Feldman, director of the group's Court Reform Project, said in an interview.
CJ CALLS STUDY 'JUNK SCIENCE'
Chief Justice Thomas Phillips called the statistics "junk science" and disputed the relevance of the analysis.
"It doesn't control for a large number of factors," he said. Among them, he said, are the court's acceptance of cases important to the state's jurisprudence and the tendency of litigants in important cases to seek appellate specialists.
Texas Supreme Court justices are elected, with much of their campaign money coming from litigants, lawyers and law firms.
The survey did not suggest that the contributions affect the way the court decides cases -- just the likelihood of access to the court.
It found that from 1994 through 1998, justices who faced elections raised $12.8 million in campaign funds. Attorneys at the 1,700 law firms that filed the 3,942 petitions studied contributed $5.4 million to the 10 justices. Donors accounted for 40 percent of petitions filed and 70 percent of those accepted, the report said.
The survey, however, found no correlation between contributions and the success of respondents to review petitions when contributor-lawyers represented that side. The acceptance rate remained within two percentage points of the 11 percent regardless of how much money the justices received from respondents.
"If money speaks as Texans for Public Justice wants you to believe, then there ought to be a correlation because the interests are just as great if you're up here trying to beat back a petition," court spokesman Osler McCarthy said. He pointed out that many of the large firms are often counsel for respondents. Feldman countered by saying, "There's a much higher statistical threshold to cross with petitions being accepted. If the big deal is to get in the door, that's where you're going to see the impact."
Richard Johnson, Baker Botts' managing partner, said his firm is proud of its record and plans to market its expertise.
"We tend to be called upon by clients to handle the kinds of important complicated cases that present the kinds of novel legal problems that the Texas Supreme Court and every court in the country are interested in taking," he said.