AUSTIN (AP) – Three members of the all-Republican Texas Supreme Court face re-election this year, but two will have to survive primary opponents who accuse the court of becoming too pro-business.
Justice Don Willett, on the court since 2005, faces a familiar opponent — Steve Smith, an Austin lawyer who served two years on the Supreme Court in the early 2000s and narrowly lost to Willett in the 2006 Republican primary.
Justice David Medina, an eight-year incumbent, has two challengers who question his ethical history: John Devine, a former district judge from Hockley, and Joe Pool Jr., a lawyer and oil and gas executive from Dripping Springs.
Willett and Medina have substantial fundraising advantages. Both also know it is rare for a Supreme Court incumbent to lose a Republican primary — though that fact might provide mixed comfort for Willett. It was his opponent, Smith, who ousted a sitting justice in 2002, only to lose to a party establishment candidate in the 2004 GOP primary.
Justice Nathan Hecht, the longest-serving member of the court, has no primary opponent. However, the 23-year justice is the only incumbent to draw a Democratic opponent for the November general election — San Antonio lawyer Michele Petty.
The other statewide appellate court, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, has three Republican incumbents running for re-election without primary opponents.
Smith, who lost to Willett by only one percentage point in the 2006 primary, said he is running again to expose the corrosive influence of big business on the court “in general and Judge Willett specifically.”
Tort reform has gone too far, limiting the rights of ordinary Texans while benefitting insurance companies and corporations, and opinions written by Willett have improperly stretched tort reform’s pro-business reach even further, said Smith, whose campaign website deconstructs several Willett decisions.
“It’s time to quit just being happy we have Republicans and start looking at how Republicans are governing,” Smith said.
Willett denies the accusation of bias and dismisses Smith, who is making his fifth run for the Supreme Court, as a gadfly and opportunist hoping to hit the lottery with an electoral victory.
“I revere the law,” Willett said. “I believe that judging — safeguarding our liberties and deciding disputes peaceably, with wisdom and evenhandedness — is a noble enterprise.”
Willett said his candidacy is supported by a long list of people versed in appellate law — former GOP justices, solicitors general, state bar presidents and top lawyers.
“I am the consensus conservative choice from every corner of the conservative movement: pro-life, pro-faith, pro-family, pro-liberty, pro-Second Amendment, pro-private property rights and pro-limited government,” he said.
Both candidates emphasize their conservative philosophies.
Smith filed the Hopwood lawsuit that eliminated, for a time, consideration of race at the University of Texas School of Law, and he continues work for the Texas Legal Foundation, a conservative public-interest organization.
Willett was a lawyer for then Gov. George W. Bush for four years and followed Bush to the White House, where he served as a special assistant in the office of faith-based initiatives.
A TV ad — made possible by $1.4 million in his campaign account as of April 19 — quotes Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, who describes Willett as “the most conservative justice on the Texas Supreme Court.”
Smith, whose campaign had less than $2,300 in the bank in mid-April, said Willett’s fundraising should raise eyebrows. “That’s not from average Texans; that’s from big business, basically. They’re getting somebody who has a business interest — a bias in favor of business,” he said.
Medina was general counsel for Gov. Rick Perry, who appointed him to the Supreme Court in 2004, and also served as a district judge and litigation counsel for Cooper Industries.
Medina touts endorsements from former Republican Supreme Court justices and conservative organizations and promises to be impartial and independent.
“I am a conservative judge who is committed to the rule of law,” Medina, who did not respond to phone messages left with his campaign, said in a letter posted on his campaign website. “I employ the United States Constitution and laws of Texas as written and do not legislate public policy from the bench.”
Both of his opponents say the Supreme Court has adopted an improper pro-business bias, and they point to a Texas Watch study that found the nine-member court overturned jury decisions in 74 percent of consumer cases decided since 2004.
For Pool — who calls himself a Christian constitutional conservative — that statistic stands in opposition to the Texas Constitution provision that says, “The right of trial by jury shall remain inviolate.”
“That is not conservatism,” said Pool, a 32-year lawyer and son of former at-large Texas Congressman Joe Pool. “Conservatism means that you uphold the Constitution; you don’t reinterpret it.”
Devine, best known for fighting off a lawsuit after he posted a painting of the Ten Commandments in his Harris County courtroom in 2000, said he hopes to restore balance to the court.
“I think there is a significant leaning to corporate interests over individual Texans,” he said. “I’m a constitutional constructionist. When a judge makes a decision, he has to look within the four corners of the Constitution.”
Devine and Pool also say they want to restore integrity to the court, alluding to headlines about Medina’s use of campaign money for personal travel between Austin and his Houston-area home. Medina repaid more than $57,000 in travel costs in 2008, saying he had received bad advice on the practice.
Also in 2008, Medina was indicted on a charge of evidence tampering in the suspected arson fire of his home. One day later, prosecutors moved to dismiss the charge, saying there was not enough evidence to proceed. Medina denied involvement in the fire.
Money could be a factor in the race, with Medina’s campaign having almost $145,000 available as of April 19 — a relatively low total when compared with other incumbents but well ahead of his opponents: $5,805 for Devine and $1,112 for Pool.
(© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)
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