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The High Court’s Checks and Balances

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Most Texans probably couldn’t name a single member of the Texas Supreme Court — although they may have voted for some of the justices. I also suspect many people don’t know that the judges on the state’s highest civil court are elected, and that the justices’ campaigns are heavily financed by the very law firms and corporations who regularly argue cases before the court.

It all looks pretty unseemly, and I doubt many Texans even know this is how the system has functioned for years.

The resourceful muckrakers at Texans for Public Justice released a new report today examining which special interests bankrolled Supreme Court candidates in 2008. (You can read the whole report here.)

TPJ, a nonprofit watchdog group, examined the campaign finance reports for the three justices who raised the most campaign cash in 2008: Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson ($1.19 million), Justice Phil Johnson ($777,392) and Justice Dale Wainwright ($851,753).

Big law firms and corporate interests supplied half the campaign money for these three justices, according to the TPJ report.

Top contributors included the Dallas law firm Haynes & Boone, Houston-based Vinson & Elkins, and the Bob Perry-funded HillCo PAC. All regularly appear before the court — either as attorney or client.

That’s not to say the money sways the High Court’s decisions (although the Nathan Hecht situation looked very bad). But it’s the appearance of influence-peddling — the possibility that we all might not be equal in the eyes of the law — that’s unsettling.

There has to be a better way.

Dave Mann has been with the Observer since 2003. Before that, he worked as a reporter in Fort Worth and Washington, D.C. He was born and raised in Philadelphia. He thinks border collies are the world’s greatest dogs, and believes in the nourishing powers of pickup basketball.