In writing about Attorney General John Cornyn, the state’s scribes rarely fail to remark that he looks the part of a statesman, with his prematurely silver hair and large head and exemplary posture. Anyone watching him walk into a room would take him for a reasonable, moderate sort of politician, and sometimes he is one–though not when he was waging an all-out legal battle with the tobacco lawsuit lawyers to eliminate their legal fees, or subpoenaing the records of Texans for Public Justice, a nonprofit group that has criticized him in the past. In general, Cornyn is not an easy man to pin down. Ever since he won the race for Attorney General in 1998 (with a little help from his friends, the physicians and the tort-reformers,) his record in office has kept observers guessing. Some of his actions, if not directly contradictory, seem odd in juxtaposition. There is Cornyn the open government advocate, who has called for improved access to public records, and then there is Cornyn the member of the Republican Attorney Generals Association, a group whose mission it is to launder industry campaign contributions and oppose state lawsuits against big business. There’s the Cornyn whose office has gone after nursing homes that abuse their residents, and then there’s the Cornyn who served on a very anti-consumer Texas Supreme Court–albeit as one of the more moderate members.
Next to the state’s ghastly Court of Criminal Appeals, though, Cornyn starts to look pretty good (as do most other humans.) Cornyn snubbed the Appeals Court last summer when he asked the U.S. Supreme Court to vacate the death penalty sentence of Victor Hugo Saldano, whose sentencing rested in part on racist testimony by Conroe psychologist Walter Quijano, and remand the case to the Texas courts. The Supremes obliged; Cornyn has since challenged the sentences of six other men whose sentencing hearings featured appearances by Quijano. The miffed members of the Appeals Court responded by questioning whether Cornyn had the authority to represent the state in this matter. An unusual inquiry, since the Attorney General of Texas has traditionally served as the state’s attorney. Nevertheless, the Appeals Court has requested all parties (Cornyn and the prosecutors in these cases) to submit briefs on whether the Attorney General may represent the state before the U.S. Supreme Court in this type of case. The showdown takes place February 28, when the Appeals Court holds a hearing on the matter.
The speculation as to Cornyn’s motives has only increased as a result of this latest death match: Is he staking out a moral high ground? Or just a political launch pad? (Cornyn, who as an undistinguished silver-haired San Antonio attorney was urged to seek a judgeship by Bexar County Republicans who thought he looked the part, is now thought to be grooming himself for a governorship or a seat in Congress.) It may seem cynical to question his motives, but once again, Cornyn’s record gives one pause. The same Attorney General who has been decidedly on the side of justice in this case previously maintained that Calvin Burdine had adequate counsel even though his lawyer slept through much of the trial. And in the case of Jesse San Miguel, a Mexican national executed last summer whose own attorney made ethnicity-based claims during the sentencing phase, Cornyn maintained that as long as it wasn’t coming from the prosecutor, racist arguments were just fine. Appearance-based assumptions, after all, have helped him get where he is today.