Texas Attorney General John Cornyn was my colleague on the Texas Supreme Court for seven years. We agreed, disagreed and discussed many tough cases while maintaining a strict adherence to the law and the highest regard for the residents of Texas. That is the John Cornyn I know well.
Since taking office in January, he has taken on another complex case and vigorously defended the best interests of the people of Texas, much to the chagrin of those who stood to gain billions of dollars if he had remained silent.
The case involved the trial lawyers’ fees in the tobacco case. You may recall that taxpayers were the winners when the trial lawyers finally waived their claim to 15 percent of the state’s share of the tobacco settlement last month.
Mr. Cornyn achieved a tremendous victory for every residentof Texas. But instead of praise, the chairman of the Texas Democratic Party chose to misinterpret the attorney’s general handling of the case and launched a scurrilous, partisan attack in an opinion column ( Viewpoints, Dallas Morning News, December 5 ).
Mr. Cornyn, by standing firm, has ensured the opportunity for an unencumbered investigation of some legitimate questions raised in this case.
I would like to offer a different, more accurate assessment of the attorney general’s handling of questions about the lawyer’s fees in the tobacco case: Mr. Cornyn was just following his duty, under the law.
Before he was sworn into office, Mr. Cornyn was approached about lawyer Marc Murr, who reportedly did little or no work on the tobacco case. At that time, Mr. Murr had a contract for $260 million from the state. From that point forward, Mr. Cornyn fulfilled his obligation to the people of Texas to investigate the circumstances surrounding Mr. Murr’s contract with the state.
In the course of his investigation, he found evidence of serious wrongdoing. Mr. Cornyn presented that evidence to the federal court in Texarkana as well as federal authorities. Subsequently, Mr. Murr dropped his claim against the state and returned the $1 million he had been awarded from the tobacco industry.
Mr. Cornyn had an obligation, under the law, to protect the state from a bogus claim for $260 million, and he acted on that responsibility.
After Mr. Murr’s claim against the state was defeated, Mr. Cornyn directed his attention to another important issue in the tobacco-related litigation: protecting the taxpayers from having to pay attorneys’ fees from the state's recovery.
Gov. George W. Bush and several Texas legislators reached an agreement with the five outside tobacco lawyers that they would claim their fees only from the tobacco companies. Shortly after that agreement, the trial lawyers were awarded $3.3 billion in attorneys’ fees from a national arbitration panel that would be funded by the tobacco industry clearing the way for the taxpayers to be let off the hook.
Nearly a year later, the trial lawyers hadn’t honored their word, despite Mr. Cornyn’s repeated appeals to them to drop their claim to taxpayers’ dollars. For almost four months, they refused unless Mr. Cornyn met their demand to drop any further investigation of possible wrongdoing by the same lawyers in the course of representing the state.
It was only when federal District Judge David Folsom ordered the attorneys to “fish or cut bait” by imposing a deadline did they give up further claims against the state’s tobacco money. Mr. Cornyn, by standing firm, has ensured the opportunity for an unencumbered investigation of some legitimate questions raised in this case.
Mr. Cornyn had an obligation, under the law, to press them to honor their previous agreement. Last month, the lawyers responded by finally agreeing to drop their claim for taxpayer money, accepting $3.3 billion from the tobacco companies. That was a victory for the taxpayers and for public health causes in Texas.
I have known Mr. Cornyn for many years. I have observed his conduct in this case as well as his overall performance in his first year as attorney general. He handled a difficult case well, with honor, with concern and with a commitment to Texas taxpayers.
I am a former Democratic statewide officeholder, and I am proud to call John Cornyn a friend. His diligence in the tobacco fees dispute was predicated by his obligation to the taxpayers of this state as well as his respect for the law. I salute him for a job well done.
Raul A. Gonzalez is a former member of the Texas Supreme Court.