Justice Is Not For Sale

By Thomas R. Phillips
Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Texas
In response to a recent Austin American-Statesman editorial "Is Justice Still For Sale?" (June 25, 1998), I write to answer a resounding NO. The judicial decisions of the Texas Supreme Court and our individual accomplishments refute such a conclusion, which certainly is not proven by the reckless assertions of Texans for Public Justice and Texas Citizen Action.

The justices of the Texas Supreme Court are diligent, honest, scholarly and fair. Rather than deciding cases based on our personal preference, our opinions attempt to follow the law as written by the Legislature and the weight of case law authority in Texas and the nation. I have never seen any justice of this Court allow any vote to be influenced by the identity of the parties or lawyers in a case.

By any national standard, Texas has an outstanding Supreme Court. The accomplishments of our justices are impressive. Eight have served on lower courts, and four graduated either first, second or third in their law school class. When "60 Minutes" first visited in 1987, five justices were former members of the Legislature; today no justices have ever sought or held any non-judicial elective office. The difference today is not, as you say, that we are largely Republican instead of entirely Democratic. It is rather that, by training and temperament, we are judges and only judges, even though we are required by law to run for office. Statewide campaigns are long and usually expensive. To inform the voters of our qualifications, we must raise money and advertise. We have tried, however, to conduct those campaigns in a way that reduces the appearance of impropriety.

We ended the practice of a judge accepting individual contributions of $25,000 and $50,000 --- common in the 1980's --- by the voluntary $5,000 campaign contribution cap that several other justices and I imposed in 1988. With our support, that voluntary cap became state law in 1995.

We greatly broadened the diversity of campaign contributors. It is simply not true that "plaintiffs' lawyers were the big contributors then and corporate defense lawyers are the big donors today," as you state. Even the data compiled by the groups criticizing the court find that only 42 percent of the current justices' contributions came from lawyers, which means that over half did not. In the 1980's, by contrast, more than 90 percent of contributions came from lawyers.

We amended the code of Judicial Conduct in 1994 to limit the time during which judges can accept campaign contributions and in 1997 to require judges to resign to run for nonjudicial office.

We have supported fundamental changes in the way judges are selected in Texas. In 1995, for example, every justice went to the Legislature to support the Bullock-Ellis plan of choosing judges through an appoint-elect-retain system. As Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock noted in a letter to Texans for Public Justice after receiving their report, instead of making "unfounded and unhelpful" allegations, they should "come to the table with meaningful suggestions and be part of the solution." I would hope that your paper, which so long has been a part of the reform effort, could also urge constructive change without insinuating charges against those who are trying to perform well despite the current system.

Commentary reprinted with the permission of the author.

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