Texas judges cave to political pressure from anti-LGBT hate groups

Nick Lyell, Money in Politics and Fair Courts team, ReThink Media

In what could now be the next big LGBT U.S. Supreme Court case, the Texas Supreme Court caved to political pressure and electoral threats from right-wing groups to reopen a case they previously dismissed as clearly unconstitutional. The case puts into sharp focus the threat partisan judicial elections — as occur in Texas — pose for fair and impartial justice and the protection of constitutional rights.

The all-Republican Supreme Court previously dismissed the case as clearly without merit as it ran counter to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision. The only thing that has changed between then and now is right-wing special interest groups and conservative politicians — including the Texas Governor and Attorney General — exerting political pressure on the justices as three of the justices face reelection in the coming year.

A right-wing anti-gay political organization, Texans For Family Values and their associated PAC were the second largest contributor to judicial candidates over the past two decades, donating at least $90,000 just in state Supreme Court races. This organization gave nearly $50,000 during Justice Devine’s election in 2012 – or 18 percent of all money he raised. He was the sole dissenting justice and will now rule on a case in which his top contributor has a strong interest.

Spending in judicial elections is skyrocketing. This reduces public confidence in the courts. Seventy-six percent of Americans believe that campaign cash affects court decisions. Almost half of judges agree. Recent empirical studies also show that the flood of money in judicial elections causes judges to issue more pro-business rulings, send more people to jail, and sentence more people to death. Lambda Legal recently conducted a study that showed that state high courts whose judges stand for election are less supportive of LGBT rights claims.

Through well-tested reforms, these pressures can be insulated against in Texas and other states. As an important first step to addressing these kinds of issues, Rep. Justin Rodrigues has filed HB 958 calling for an interim study on judicial selection methods. Many states already have common-sense systems of judicial selection that insulate the courts and their judges from big-money and political partisanship, focusing them on their job — to defend the constitution.

“It’s unlikely we will ever know if the Court gave in to political pressure, but that’s really beside the point,” said Eric Lesh, Fair Courts Project Director at Lambda Legal. “The integrity of a fair and impartial judiciary depends on public perception that the Court did not and would not do that. State judges are not politicians. We want judges to decide cases based on the law and the facts —not political pressure, popular opinion or fear of retaliation. Each day, thousands of elected judges in state courts across the country make decisions that could cost them their jobs if the law requires a ruling that is unpopular enough to anger a majority of voters or inspire special interest attacks.”

Former Chief Justice of Texas’s Supreme Court Wallace Jefferson has condemned the judicial election process in Texas, calling it “a broken system.”

A commission-based appointment system of selecting judges based on merit is the best way to boost public confidence in the courts and guard against money and political influence affecting judicial decision-making. Twenty-two states have such a system.

For additional information, visit rethinkmedia.org/money-politics-and-fair-courts.