Fort Worth plaintiffs’ attorneys won’t have Chris Harris to kick around anymore. In our April 16 cover story, we reported that Harris, a practicing attorney and Republican senator, appeared in court last fall in defense of nursing homes on trial in Tarrant County.
This spring, the Senator from Arlington arranged something of a change of venue and started doing the work of nursing homes on the floor of the Senate — without revealing his conflict of interest. Then a tip led us to Harris’ name on the Tarrant County court docket, and less than a week after our story hit the newsstands the Senator quietly filed motions to withdraw in all four of the nursing home cases in which he was involved.
Harris’ legislative office has declined to comment on his decision to withdraw. His law associate in Arlington, David Cook, confirmed that motions to withdraw had been filed, but would not comment further. “We’ve been instructed not to discuss any more of this with you,” Cook said. Gail Friend, a Houston lawyer working as the lead defense attorney in the four nursing home cases, had retained Harris — along with his legislative privileges and weighty reputation in Tarrant County. Questioned a month ago about employing a state senator to explain “legislative intent” to Republican judges in Fort Worth, Friend said she did not know Harris was a senator when she hired him. She’s more circumspect now. “I don’t think I have anything to say to you,” she said, before abruptly ending a phone call.
In general, when a lead attorney becomes aware of a conflict of interest, he is required to appear before the presiding judge to explain the conflict and make a formal request to withdraw from the case. Because Harris was only the local counsel, he is not required to explain why he withdrew. Identical motions filed in three of the four cases simply state that the defendants in the cases (three otherwise unrelated nursing homes) have each decided to replace Harris with Frank Hill, another local counsel from Arlington. Harris’ departure means his legislative continuances — that is, delays in the cases granted to the defendants while the Senate is in session — are no longer valid, and the cases can now proceed.
But Bernard Suchocki, the plaintiffs’ attorney in two of the cases, claims the damage is already done. “The Senator opposed our efforts to obtain photographs of our deceased client, which were taken at a local hospital by state agency employees who were investigating elder abuse. He argued to quash our notice of the depositions of these same state investigators and he argued against the admissibility of state survey records, which showed that after our deceased client was removed from the nursing home, he had pressure sores, was dehydrated, malnourished, and had gangrene in his right foot,” Suchocki said. “[The Senator] never attended any one of twelve depositions, but was supposed to play a substantial role in the trial. So the trial was delayed until after the legislative session. Now, after all this, he wants out of the case, and he will not admit that he has a conflict of interest.”
Just one more advantage state legislators enjoy in state courts: Never having to say you’re sorry.