Texas ' chief justice resigning
Longtime foe of state's system of electing judges will teach law

Copyright 2004 Houston Chronicle Austin Bureau
April 30, 2004, Page 1A

AUSTIN -- Taking a parting shot at a money-driven election system that gave him four victories but little comfort, Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Tom Phillips announced Thursday he will resign in September to teach at Houston 's South Texas College of Law.

The first Republican chief justice of modern times, Phillips has presided over the state's highest civil court for 16 years, a period marked by major political and philosophical changes.

Phillips, 54, said he was proud that the tumult surrounding the court when he was appointed to a mid-term vacancy by then-Gov. Bill Clements in January 1988 has subsided.

"Our court was on the front pages of the newspaper in 1988, and now we're in the legal treatises and the law classrooms. I think that's the proper role of the court," he said.

But Phillips decried, as he has during much of his career, the partisan election system that still forces judges to accept campaign contributions from lawyers and other special interests.

His appointment to a visiting professorship at South Texas College of Law is for the 2004-05 academic year. After that, he said, he may return to private law practice.

Phillips will teach a seminar in the fall semester and will teach First Amendment law and state constitutional law in the spring.

"We are honored to have Justice Phillips here to share his experiences and vast knowledge with our students. Justice Phillips has a national reputation for being a scholarly jurist, and I believe he will feel very much at home in legal education," said South Texas President and Dean James Alfini.

Neither Phillips nor Alfini discussed how much Phillips will be paid, but the retiring chief justice said the chair was "well-funded." Phillips is paid $115,000 a year as chief justice.

Alfini said he approached Phillips about a post-retirement teaching position some time ago but didn't know when the chief justice planned to step down from the court.

Phillips was a state district judge in Houston when Clements appointed him to succeed Democrat John Hill, who had resigned in midterm.

Before the resignations of Hill and two other Democratic justices about the same time, the nine-member court was all Democratic and strongly aligned philosophically with plaintiffs' lawyers.

Within a few years, Republicans had captured all of the court's seats, as they did other statewide offices, and businesses and insurance companies began prevailing over major legal challenges brought by plaintiff-consumers. Consequently, the court has received much criticism in recent years from consumer advocacy groups.

But Phillips said he was "proud of this court's commitment to the rule of law."

"Today, our opinions are respected across the nation for their scholarship and fairness. All of our justices respect the court's proper role of interpreting and applying the law, not inventing it," he added.

Phillips was the youngest chief justice ever in Texas when he began his tenure at 38 and became the court's third-longest-serving chief justice. He was elected four times since his appointment, most recently in 2002. Gov. Rick Perry will name a successor to complete his six-year term.

Phillips said he ran for re-election in 2002 because of recent turnover on the court and because he wanted to persuade the Legislature last year to enact changes in judicial selection and court organization.

"Some progress, indeed, was made, but not enough. Perhaps new leadership can rally public support for comprehensive reform that will give our great state the court system that it truly deserves," he said.

For years, Phillips has advocated replacing Texas ' partisan election of judges with a "merit selection" plan, under which the governor would appoint judges. The judges would later face voters in retention elections but wouldn't have opponents on the ballot. Voters would simply decide whether a judge should remain in office or be replaced by another gubernatorial appointee.

The Legislature has repeatedly refused to change the system, which Phillips' Democratic predecessor also attacked upon leaving the court 16 years ago.

"Our most pressing problem, I believe, is judicial selection. The high-dollar, partisan system creates great instability in the judiciary and erodes public confidence in the fairness of our decisions," Phillips said Thursday.

Over the years, he has raised and spent millions of dollars in political donations. In 1990 alone, in his first election for a full term, he spent more than $2.6 million in a highly contested race. Phillips accepted no campaign contributions in 2002 but had only minor opposition then.

Bill Summers, president of Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse, which supports limits on civil lawsuits and judgments, said Phillips' departure "leaves big robes to fill."

Guy Choate, president-elect of the Texas Trial Lawyers Association, said Phillips "started out on the right-hand side of the court and ended up as one of its more moderate members."

Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse

2500 City West Boulevard, Suite 300 • Houston, Texas 77042
E-mail: sosueme@calahouston.org • Administrative: (713) 267-2302 • Fax: (713) 267-2267