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In Supreme Court Races, a Clash Over Contributors

Three Texas Supreme Court justices up for re-election face GOP primary challenges. Backers of the incumbents are critical about where support for those challengers is coming from. And those challengers have questioned the current court's conservatism.

As three of the four Texas Supreme Court justices up for re-election face opponents in the Republican primary, the focus in those races has been as much on the candidates’ financiers as on the candidates themselves.

The incumbents, with support from tort reformers and big-name conservatives like Ted Cruz, face challengers who have relied in large part on support from trial lawyers, some of whom have historically given big to Democrats. 

Running for chief justice, or Place 1 on the ballot, are Nathan Hecht, the incumbent, and Robert Talton, a former state legislator. Place 6 incumbent Jeff Brown faces a challenge from Joe Pool Jr., an attorney in private practice. The race for Place 8 pits incumbent Phil Johnson against Sharon McCally, a justice on the state’s 14th Court of Appeals. Jeffrey S. Boyd, the incumbent for Place 7, has no primary challenger.

Among the leading supporters for the incumbents is the lobbying group Texans for Lawsuit Reform, which advocates for tort reform and limiting lawsuits. The group says the challengers are relying on left-leaning donors and trial lawyers in their fundraising efforts. The challengers, meanwhile, have questioned the current court's conservatism and say fresh faces are needed on the bench.

Sherry Sylvester, a spokeswoman for TLR, pointed to a fundraiser for the three challengers hosted last week by John Eddie Williams, a contributor to Democrats in Texas and nationally, as an example of why GOP primary voters should be suspicious of the challengers.

"They are using deceptively named groups that obscure their involvement — Balance PAC, Texans for Family Values and Christian Attorneys of Texas — that they may believe are likely to appeal to Republican voters," Sylvester said. By contrast, she called the incumbent justices “exemplary judges who have distinguished records of achievement.”

TLR has given more than $10,000 to the Hecht campaign, $15,000 to the Johnson campaign and $20,000 to the Brown campaign, according to Texas Ethics Commission filings.

Supporters of the challengers have accused TLR, a nonpartisan group that supports Republican and Democratic candidates, of hypocrisy.

Mark Lanier, a Republican trial lawyer in Houston working with Democrats on behalf of the challengers, noted that the incumbents had also taken money from left-leaning trial lawyers. For example, he named Joe Jamail, a billionaire tort lawyer in Houston with a history of giving to Democrats, who gave $5,000 each to the Brown and Hecht campaigns.

“I think the candidates ought to be judged based on who they are, not who is giving to them,” Lanier said.

The Texans for Family Values PAC, which lists the Lanier Law Firm under employers on its report with the Texas Ethics Commission, has given $5,000 to Pool. Balance PAC, which has received contributions from other PACs Lanier has donated to, paid for online advertisements critical of the incumbent justices.

Tom Phillips, a former Republican chief justice on the Texas Supreme Court, said the challengers' fundraising efforts were a signal of a "vigorous split" within the Republican Party between trial lawyers and tort reformers.

"It's unusual to see candidates basically espousing an anti-tort reform message in the Republican Party," he said. "There's been an effort to paint that as more conservative than the traditional view."

Hecht, a 25-year veteran of the court and the longest-serving justice in its history, said the race should focus on judicial experience. “I’ve been very active in trying to bring efficiency to the civil justice system, and also to do what I can to ensure access to justice by poor people,” said Hecht, who was appointed chief justice by Gov. Rick Perry last year after Wallace Jefferson stepped down.

Talton, meanwhile, described himself as a conservative who values fiscal responsibility and limited government. “I made a decision that I was going to run to do what I could to make sure the court was a fair, impartial judiciary, because that’s not what I’m seeing,” he said. He cited data from Texas Watch, a consumer advocacy group, indicating that the Texas Supreme Court has overturned 74 percent of the jury verdicts it reviewed.

Talton alleged that the incumbent judges had ties to more Democratic-leaning supporters than he did, and he called attention to an ethics complaint against Hecht that has pended for five years over an unpaid fine.

Hecht called the ethics complaint against him “old news” and Talton’s comments “hard to take that seriously.”

The winner will face Democrat Bill Moody and Libertarian Tom Oxford in the general election.

In Place 6, Brown, who was appointed to the court last year by Perry, also stressed the importance of judicial experience, which he said Pool lacked. Brown described himself as a strict constructionist without an opinion on tort reform, and said he had received TLR’s backing “because they know conservative judges will defer to the Legislature.”

Pool, meanwhile, echoed questions about the current court’s conservatism, and wondered why it was "messing with the Constitution" by overturning a majority of the jury verdicts it reviewed.

“This is not conservative,” he said. “This is not constitutional, and it affects our economy in a negative way.”

The winner will face Democrat Larry Meyers, a current justice on the Court of Criminal Appeals and former Republican, as well as Libertarian Mark Ash.

In Place 8, Johnson, who was appointed to the court in 2005, said he would show more judicial restraint than his opponent.

“She believes that I too strictly interpret some statutory language that’s been adopted, and I just believe differently,” he said.

McCally, meanwhile, said she would bring diversity of opinion and background to the court, noting that seven of the nine justices are men, and that seven are political appointees.

“We have sort of a homogenous makeup of the court,” she said. “I think we need more women, and I think we need more people who have been trial court judges.”

McCally identified herself as “one of the more conservative justices on my court,” and criticized TLR for implying that her political beliefs aligned otherwise.

The winner will face Libertarian RS Roberto Koelsch and Green Party candidate Jim Chisolm.

Boyd, who is running unopposed in the Republican primary for Place 7, is a former chief of staff for Perry who was tapped for the high court in 2012. He will face Democrat Gina Benavides, Libertarian Don Fulton and Green Party candidate Charles E. Waterbury in November.

Texas Tribune donors or members may be quoted or mentioned in our stories, or may be the subject of them. For a complete list of contributors, click here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2014/02/25/supreme-court-candidates-clash-over-contributors/.

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