A term on the Supreme Court of Texas comes with its perks. Parking, the black robe, the power to judge the thorniest civil litigation in the state. And, for Justice Nathan Hecht at least, the ability to shake down the state’s largest law firms and corporations when you need cash.
When Hecht found himself in legal and ethical trouble earlier this year, he reached out to the very lawyers and companies who frequently bring litigation before the state’s highest civil court. They happily covered his legal expenses to the tune of at least $447,000. As Mel Brooks once observed, it’s good to be the king.
Hecht’s ethical problems began when his friend and rumored former flame, Harriet Miers, was nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court by President Bush in fall 2005. The nomination of Miers, then the White House counsel, expired rather quickly, but not for lack of effort on Hecht’s part. He praised her effusively in more than 100 media interviews. His barnstorming drew the attention of the state Commission on Judicial Conduct, which slapped Hecht with a rare public admonition in May 2006 for improperly using his office. A special three-judge panel later exonerated Hecht, but not before he amassed $340,000 in legal costs. What’s a Supreme Court justice to do?
This February, Hecht mailed letters to several high-profile law firms requesting donations to his defense fund, as first reported by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. A who’s who of the Texas legal world opened its wallets. Combining PAC contributions and donations from individual lawyers, Vinson & Elkins ponied up $30,000, Baker Botts $26,000, and Locke Liddell & Sapp $25,000, according to Hecht’s recent disclosure filings with the Texas Ethics Commission.
In the months after Hecht collected the money, the Supreme Court heard cases involving firms and interests who helped bail out the court’s senior member. It’s difficult to determine exactly how many. The high court’s computer system does not include search functions that allow the public to glean such information. When the pro-consumer group Texas Watch dug through the court’s recent signed opinions to compile a partial list, it found that since March, Hecht has ruled in favor of contributors to his legal fund in eight of nine signed opinions. That doesn’t include unsigned opinions and cases the court declined to hear.
The total also doesn’t include a case involving homebuilder and GOP megadonor Bob Perry on which the court has yet to rule. Just weeks before the court heard arguments in the case, which pitted Perry against disgruntled homeowners, Hecht received $16,000 for his legal fund from the Hillco PAC, which Perry largely bankrolls. Hecht didn’t recuse himself.
Ironically, Hecht began his 18-year tenure on the court as a Republican reformer. In 1988, Hecht defeated incumbent Justice Bill Kilgarlin, the first sitting justice to be admonished by the Commission on Judicial Conduct. His offense? Soliciting funds for legal bills from lawyers who practiced before the court. Sounds awfully familiar.
In a statement released by his campaign, Hecht said at the time, “Texas should reject judges whose unethical conduct has made a mockery of our justice system.”
Back then, the all-Democratic Supreme Court was co-opted by trial lawyers. Now it’s the opposite: Corporate interests and their allied Republican justices dominate. But the influence-peddling is just as unseemly and unjust.
Hecht’s unvarnished panhandling brings us right back where we were 19 years ago. Electing our state’s highest court in partisan contests and allowing justices to solicit money from law firms and millionaires were idiotic and repugnant then. So it remains.