Supreme Court backs judges’ recusals in big donors’ cases

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that judges must step aside in cases involving their large political contributors, prompting renewed calls for Texas to change a system in which judges raise money to run in partisan elections. Experts and lawmakers said the decision, which was narrowly drawn and did not set a standard for what is impermissible influence, might not force immediate change in Texas, where contributions to judges are limited. But advocates of reform, including Texas Supreme Court Justice Wallace Jefferson, said they hoped it would focus the debate on how to improve the system.

The 5-4 ruling in a West Virginia case "challenges us to do more to remove the perception that judicial campaign contributions influence decisions in Texas courts," said Jefferson, a Republican who won re-election in November after spending more than $842,000. Months ago, speaking before the Legislature, he was blunt about the problem, saying: "This is an area where perception itself destroys public confidence."

Since 1995, Texas has had contribution limits in judicial races: Individual families can donate $5,000, and political action committees are limited to $300,000. Most experts said that those limits could prevent a conflict as significant as the one in the West Virginia case, Caperton vs. Massey Coal Co., in which the chief justice of the West Virginia Supreme Court must now recuse himself from a $50 million suit because he accepted $3 million in campaign contributions from the top executive of the coal plant.

But criticism is not unprecedented. The question of influence over the Texas Supreme Court arose last year when the court overturned an $800,000 arbitration award to Bob and Jane Cull of Mansfield, who had sued Houston homebuilder Bob Perry, the largest GOP contributor in the state. The Culls had lodged a 10-year fight over a house with cracked foundations and walls, but their court victories were set aside by the state’s highest court, where all nine of the justices had received contributions from Perry totaling $260,000. The contributions were directly from him and through a political action committee.

Texans for Public Justice, which has fought to rid judicial campaigns of political money, said the U.S. Supreme Court ruling shows that Texas judges should stop raising money from those who have business before the court.

"The court invites greater scrutiny — and more federal challenges — to determine when the corrupting influence of judicial campaign money violates the U.S. Constitution," said the group’s director, Craig McDonald. Texas is one of four states where all general jurisdictional judges are selected in partisan elections, along with Louisiana, Alabama and West Virginia. The system works just fine, said Kirsten Gray, a spokeswoman for the Texas Democratic Party. Both the Republican and Democratic parties have fought legislation that would change how the state elects its judges, saying Texans are fiercely protective of the opportunity to vote for judges.

Partisan labels are helpful for voters, and appointing judges doesn’t remove the politics, Gray said. "Whether chosen by voters or appointed by the governor, ideology will be taken into account, so it’s better to have those people who live in that area chose their own judges," Gray said.

Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, and former Chief Justice Tom Phillips have both worked for a system in which judges are appointed and then the voters decide whether to retain them in office.
"The most useful thing the opinion might do is give further background to the debate on how we select judges," Phillips said. With partisan labels and money-raising pressures, "the whole system is bad," he said.

Duncan said he doubts the court decision will be much of an impetus to change Texas’ ways because "there are just too many stakeholders who have an interest in keeping it the way we have it." But it could cause more judges to be asked to step aside in cases where their campaign donors have an interest. "In Texas, we need to take some time and scratch our heads and ask, ‘Do we have sufficient safeguards to keep these situations from happening,’ " Duncan said. "We’ve attempted to address some of those kinds of abuses, but if it is enough, I don’t know."

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Photo of Michelle O'Neil Michelle O'Neil

Michelle May O’Neil has 27 years’ experience representing small business owners, professionals, and individuals in litigation related to family law matters such as divorce, child custody, and complex property division. Described by one lawyer as “a lethal combination of sweet-and-salty”, Ms. O’Neil exudes…

Michelle May O’Neil has 27 years’ experience representing small business owners, professionals, and individuals in litigation related to family law matters such as divorce, child custody, and complex property division. Described by one lawyer as “a lethal combination of sweet-and-salty”, Ms. O’Neil exudes genuine compassion for her client’s difficulties, yet she can be relentless when in pursuit of a client’s goals. One judge said of Ms. O’Neil, “She cannot be out-gunned, out-briefed, or out-lawyered!”

Family Law Specialist

Ms. O’Neil became a board-certified family law specialist by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization in 1997 and has maintained her certification since that time. While representing clients in litigation before the trial court is an important part of her practice, Ms. O’Neil also handles appellate matters in the trial court, courts of appeals and Texas Supreme Court. Lawyers frequently consult with Ms. O’Neil on their litigation cases about specialized legal issues requiring particularized attention both at the trial court and appellate levels. This gives her a unique perspective and depth of perception that benefits both her litigation and appellate clients.

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Ms. O’Neil has been named to the list of Texas SuperLawyers for many years, 2011-2018, a peer-voted honor given to only about 5% of the lawyers in the state of Texas. In 2014-2018, Ms. O’Neil received the special honor of being named by Texas SuperLawyers as one of the Top 50 Women Lawyers in Texas, Top 100 Lawyers in Texas, and Top 100 Lawyers in DFW. She was named one of the Best Lawyers in America for 2016 and received an “A-V” peer review rating by Martindale-Hubbell Legal Directories for the highest quality legal ability and ethical standards.

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A noted author, Ms. O’Neil released her second book Basics of Texas Divorce Law in November 2010, with a second edition released in 2013, and a third edition expected in 2015.  Her first book, All About Texas Law and Kids, was published in September 2009 by Texas Lawyer Press. In 2012, Ms. O’Neil co-authored the booklets What You Need To Know About Common Law Marriage In Texas and Social Study Evaluations.  The State Bar of Texas and other providers of continuing education for attorneys frequently enlist Ms. O’Neil to provide instruction to attorneys on topics of her expertise in the family law arena.