Is Texas High Court Contaminated by Toxic Campaign Cash?
Weekley family activism leaves a plaintiff worried about her chances for justice at the Supreme Court.
When Dawn Richardson got a favorable ruling from a Travis Co. district judge late last year, she thought that her longstanding complaints against David Weekley Homes might finally move toward legal resolution. But now, after more legal wrangling -- amid some hefty campaign contributions made to the Texas Supreme Court -- Richardson isn't sure she'll ever find justice.
Richardson and her husband Scott filed suit against Weekley and a host of subcontractors in March 2001, claiming that their new Weekley home was contaminated by toxic mold and that the building materials used produced toxic "off-gassing." Both circumstances have made her family ill, she said, and her home uninhabitable. (Since the family moved out of the home in mid-2001, they have been living in a one-bedroom apartment.) Although Richardson thought she'd complied with all prerequisites to filing suit, as required by various state statutes, she didn't realize that in signing the original contract with Weekley she'd thrown away many of her legal rights by accepting a clause that mandates binding arbitration.
In district court, visiting Judge Rose Spector -- the former Texas Supreme Court justice -- ruled that Dawn and Scott Richardson would, consistent with that contract, have to submit to binding arbitration to settle their complaints. But Spector also ruled that Richardson's children -- who were parties to the original suit -- were not bound by the contract and did have a right to a trial by jury. Weekley appealed Spector's decision to the 3rd Court of Appeals; on March 27 a three-judge panel upheld her decision.
Richardson thought the ruling meant that her long-delayed arbitration -- stalled pending the final decision regarding the children's claims -- would go forward. But on May 1 Weekley appealed the decision again, to the Texas Supreme Court. Whether the court will decide to hear the case is unknown -- and in part, that's what has Richardson worried.
Just over two weeks after Weekley filed its appeal to the high court, Richardson was dismayed to discover just how much money the Weekley family and the Texans for Lawsuit Reform PAC -- founded by David Weekley's brother and business partner Richard Weekley -- has donated to the campaigns of justices currently sitting on the court. In the May 19 edition of the Dollar Docket, a Web publication of Texans for Public Justice, Richardson discovered that seven of the nine current TSC justices have altogether received more than $120,000 in campaign cash from Weekley and the TLR PAC. (Only Harriet O'Neill and Steven Wayne Smith have taken "not a dime" from the Weekleys or TLR PAC, says TPJ's Andrew Wheat.) "Where does this leave us with the Supreme Court of Texas when all but two [justices] have received more than $5,000 from Weekley?" Richardson asks. "I feel like our case epitomizes the disgusting nature of all this."
And TPJ's Wheat agrees. "It offends the very notion of justice," Wheat said. "So, is there a perception problem here? Yes. There is no worse perception."
Weekley's lawyer Raul Gonzalez -- also a former justice of the Texas Supreme Court -- definitively denies that campaign contributions influence the justices' decisions. "The judges make decisions based on the merits [of a case]," he said. However, he said contributions made to judicial candidates do create a perception of impropriety. "There is no way to avoid the perception unless you change the system," he said -- a proposition Gonzalez said he has supported for the past 18 years. "The same change that [current] Chief Justice Tom Phillips favors," he said -- doing away with judicial elections in favor of a system where judges are appointed and then subject to retention elections. The Lege again avoided making that perennially suggested change this session, a situation that Gonzalez said he finds "disappointing."
Under the current cash-soaked system, Wheat says that TLR has been most influential in determining the current makeup of the court -- that is, hostile to torts. "They have worked the court into their own image: a court that is hostile to consumer interests," he said.
Not surprisingly, Texans for Lawsuit Reform sees this situation quite differently. In April, TLR published its own critique of Texans for Public Justice, calling the watchdog group nothing more than a "de facto mouthpiece" for plaintiffs' trial attorneys. In the report, TLR notes that TPJ's own reports have omitted the fact that since January 2000, plaintiffs' attorneys have donated $7.3 million to legislative and judicial campaigns through their own network of PACs. "Even a cursory review of TPJ reveals that its rancorous attacks are apparently motivated by a specific political agenda," the TLR report reads. "[I]ts unstated goal is to demonize business interests and any elected officials who support a pro-business agenda or who oppose frivolous lawsuits."
All of the rhetoric doesn't do much to assuage Richardson's fears. "[The Supreme Court] is supposed to be the most sacred place in the state," she said. "And it's human nature to help the people that support you. How are we going to go up against that?"