The costs of justice for all

Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson and Justice Nathan Hecht, both elected to the Texas Supreme Court (as Republicans) in state-wide election, issued a strong plea to legislators to restore funding of the state’s legal aid programs. I emphasis their status as elected officials because they carry a mandate of sorts because they have been chosen by voters state-wide. Jefferson and Hecth re-elected in 2006 with 2.5 million votes the same year Perry won 1.7 million votes. Jefferson won almost 4.1 million votes in 2008. Any elected official with more votes than these fellows can ignore their advice. Everyone else should at least give their suggestions a little consideration.

I have included the entire letter so you can see the range arguments offered and not have to worry about selective editing (I did add a couple of links):

For its own integrity’s sake, the civil justice system must be available to every Texan victimized by domestic violence, to each veteran wrongly denied the benefits our country has promised, and to all families who have paid their bills but are nevertheless evicted from their homes. These situations occur in Texas. But under current funding sources, we can reach less than one-fourth of those in need.

You have asked what the probable consequences will be if we are unable to secure funding to give these citizens access to our courts. We hesitate to contemplate that outcome. But having consulted the Texas Access to Justice Foundation, which administers grants to legal aid providers in Texas, supervised by the Supreme Court, we are offer the following report.

First, we know of no way to replace the $20 million that the Legislature appropriated in 2009. For decades, the IOLTAprogram has been a principal source of funding for Texas legal aid. But IOLTA funds are a product of federal interest rates, which are near zero. Those funds have fallen over 75%, from about $20 million in 2007, to a projected $4.4 million this year. The other major source of funding, the Legal Services Corporation, has been cut 4% this year. Deeper cuts are forecast for next year.

Second, we know that, for lack of a minor investment, Texas will be denied great rewards. The forty programs the Foundation funds help about 104,000 families a year. The Foundation estimates that a $20 million reduction in funding would result in the denial of basic civil legal services to some 25,000 struggling Texans. As many of those Texans are single-parent heads of households, the number truly impacted would exceed 75,000.

Third, lawyers that work in legal aid organizations (for a fraction of what their peers earn) not only represent poor Texans, but also coordinate and support volunteer efforts by other Texas lawyers. It is triage work; the legal aid lawyers help when they can, and enlist the services of private attorneys who donate their time and money to provide free assistance. When legal aid organizations perish through lack of funding, the portal through which clients are aligned with private attorneys will collapse.

Fourth, the funding we seek is not to compensate lawyers. The lawyer who represents an indigent victim of domestic violence works for free or for sums vastly below what the private sector commands. Legal aid lawyers work to preserve the rule of law, and thus the integrity of our civil justice system. They represent our neighbors who fall below the poverty level (annual income of $13,613 for an individual, $27,938 for a family of four). These include veterans and their families, the disabled, children, the elderly, and victims of natural disasters. About 5.7 million Texans qualify for legal aid.

Some consider this Court conservative. Conservative principles do not call for the rule of law to be denied the most vulnerable members of our community. The civil justice system is where people can claim for themselves the benefits of the rule of law. It is where the promises of the rule of law become real. A society that denies access to the courts for the least among us denigrates the law for us all. For these reasons, securing funding for basic civil legal services has been a priority for the Supreme Court, one to which its members are unanimously committed.

Access to the court system is fundamental to justice and democracy. If the government has created a legal system that is beyond the understanding or affordability of most Texans, the burden is on the state to re-open the process. Government needs to defined to meet the needs of citizens–not the other way around.

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The Texas Tribune’s interview with Texas Supreme Court justice Harriet O’Neill

The Texas Tribune has a good interview with former Texas Supreme Court justice Harriet O’Neill. It’s always interesting to hear a former justice talk about the faults and strengths of the court system. She talks about some of the problems with taking campaign funds from the lawyers who practice before the Court and how Texas courts have changed over her years as a judge in the system.

It seems that every justice I hear from comments about the problems of campaign finance in Texas judicial elections. I wonder when Texans are going to figure out that they should share that concern.

Eva Guzman becomes first Hispanic woman to serve on the Texas Supreme Court

Justice Eva Guzman

Justice Eva Guzman

Lost to many to noise coming out the Texas gubernatorial campaign was Eva Guzman’s appointment to the Texas Supreme Court.  Guzman father was an immigrant welder and her mother was cleaning lady. Justice Guzman has an undergraduate degree from the University of Houston as well as a law degree from South Texas College of Law. The  story that seems to have the best coverage is in the Houston Chronicle (her hometown paper). Before Governor Perry appointed her to the Supreme Court Guzman had been serving as an associate justice on the 14th Court of Appeals in Houston and as an adjunct professor at the University of Houston Law Center.

Perry’s appointment of Guzman was made possible when Scott Brister left the Court last month in order to go into private practice. While Guzman will have to face election by statewide voters her appointment by the Governor will obviously making winning that election easier. Appointing judges to this kind of vacancy is a good example of the Texas Governor’s ability to shape the court system even in a system in which judges are elected. For example, note that Perry initially appointed Guzman to her previous position on the  appointed Guzman to the 14th Court of Appeals in 2001 and Guzman went on to win election to that seat in both 2002 and 2004  Running as a sitting justice, Guzman will have an advantage with campaign contributors and voters because incumbency helps with both visibility and credibility. Voters can choose not to retain judges initially appointed by the governor, but such rejections seem rare.

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The Dallas Morning News ran a short interview with Guzman on October 25.

Election 2008 – Democrats struggle in statewide races but nearly win the House

With the votes nearly counted (but not recounted) it appears that the Democrats came within a very few votes of producing a 75-75 tie in the Texas Legislature. It appears that Bob Romano fell about 20 votes shy of unseating Republican incumbent State Representative Linda Harper-Brownin. Romano has asked for a recount so we will not know for sure who represents Irvin until next week.

The close battle to control the Texas House is especially interesting since the Democrats showed little sign of winning state-wide office. The state’s top Democratic vote-getter was Sam Houston. He polled about 45.9% in his challenge to incumbent Justice Dale Wainwright for a seat on the Texas Supreme Court. With Obama polling at 43.7% and Rick Norriega getting 42.8% (the lowest percentage for a Democrat and slightly lower than the 43.3% Ron Kirk got in that race in 2002) it looks like there wasn’t much variation in the state-wide Democratic vote. Overall, the Democrats numbers looked better than in 2006. However, their leading candidate in 2006 (Bill Moody challenging for place 2 on the Texas Supreme Court) managed 44.9% that year. It’s somewhat comforting that Sam Houston didn’t finish that far ahead of the rest of the field. It looks like very few voters confused him with his more famous namesake.

With Bush off the ballot (even though his approval is only about 34% here in Texas) and Obama exciting Democratic voters the Democrats were hoping to pick off a few seats on the Texas Supreme Court. However, they failed to do significantly better state-wide than in ’06. This is despite what appeared to me to be a pretty effective campaign ad campaign that attempted to raise doubts about having every seat on the Court in the hands of one party.

The House races were another matter. Even if they failed to win a majority the Democrats managed to shake the Republican majority enough to rattle the Speakers race.