Justice's departure may be
start of Supreme Court shuffle

By Bruce Hight
American-Statesman Staff

Former Texas Supreme Court justice Greg Abbott, left, pictured with Jon Opelt, Houston director of Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse. Abbott has resigned his seat on the high court to run for Attorney General.

Photo by Dick Scott Photography
was not part of the Statesman article.

The Texas Supreme Court faces the biggest upheaval among its members since 1988. As many as six of the court's nine seats could be up for election next year instead of the usual three. Justice James Baker, a member of the Texas Supreme Court since 1995, announced Tuesday he will not run for re-election. His term expires at the end of 2002. Baker, like the other eight members of the court, is a Republican.

Chief Justice Mike Schneider of the 1st Court of Appeals in Houston immediately announced he will run for Baker's seat. Schneider is also a Republican.

Justice Greg Abbott is expected to announce today his candidacy for lieutenant governor and his resignation from the state's highest civil court. That would leave Gov. Rick Perry to appoint a successor, who would face election to keep the seat next year.

The terms of two other court members -- Chief Justice Tom Phillips and Justice Deborah Hankinson -- also will expire at the end of next year. Phillips said Tuesday he will decide this fall whether to run again; Hankinson could not be reached, but she reportedly is being considered by the White House for a federal appointment.

The court this year already has lost one justice, Al Gonzales, who left to become President Bush's White House counsel. He was replaced by a San Antonio lawyer, Wallace Jefferson, who was appointed by Perry and also must run next year.

Bush has nominated Justice Priscilla Owen for a seat on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.

If she is confirmed by the U.S. Senate, which is not a certainty given the Democratic takeover, Perry would get another appointment, and that seat also would be on next year's ballot.

Phillips said he hasn't seen this much turnover on the court since 1988, when he was appointed chief justice.

Six of the court's seats were up for election that year, in part because of controversy and scandal over campaign contributions to several justices. The court was then dominated by Democrats.

"It did impede the court's work," Phillips said of the numerous Supreme Court races in 1988. "Because six judges were on the ballot at one time, we had to change some of the court's internal procedures -- the basic one being the unwritten rule that a judge in a contested race was given a reduced or eliminated (caseload)."

Baker, 70, a former justice on the 5th Court of Appeals in Dallas, said he probably will return to Dallas to practice law, work as a mediator or serve as a visiting judge. And, Baker said, he might resign before his term is over if the right opportunity comes along; that would give Perry another interim appointment.

Bush appointed Baker -- no relation to former Secretary of State James Baker of Houston -- to the court in 1995 to fill a seat vacated by Justice Bob Gammage, who had resigned. He then won election on his own in 1996.

Baker said he has enjoyed his service on the Supreme Court, but he acknowledged that "one of the factors" in his decision not to run again was the need to solicit campaign funds and the heavy statewide travel required in an election.

You may contact Bruce Hight at bhight@statesman.com or (512) 445- 3977.