Supreme Attention

Dems for the Court

Linda Yañez
Linda Yañez

Place 7: Justice and Procedures

In the race for Texas Supreme Court Place 7, two Democrats are competing for a chance to face six-year incumbent Republican Justice Dale Wainwright in November. Sam Houston, a mellow and reserved historical namesake from Houston, has been practicing civil law – including malpractice, business litigation, and general liability cases – for more than 20 years and is board-certified in personal-injury trial law. Like the other Dems running for Texas' highest civil appellate court, Houston is running as a candidate who can return some balance to the all-Republican, über-business-friendly court. His bid for the job has been endorsed by the Harris County Democrats, a handful of Austin Dem clubs, and the Texas AFL-CIO. Houston told the Houston Chronicle that the civil high court is now stacked with judges whose approach to handling cases is "results-oriented" and "activist" and has said he's particularly appalled by the number of jury verdicts the court has overturned (in 2005-06 term, the court ruled for civil defendants a whopping 84% of the time, according to Texas Watch). "In my view, and in the view of many others, the current Supreme Court of Texas has been undermining the jury system, particularly in civil trials, and this has been of great concern to me, both as a lawyer and as a citizen," Houston says. (More on Houston at www.samhoustonforjustice.com.)

Susan Criss
Susan Criss

Facing Houston in the primary is the more gregarious Baltasar D. Cruz, a Dallas attorney who has been in civil practice for 17 years. Cruz is effusive ("overly verbose," said The Dallas Morning News, in endorsing Houston) about what he would like to see happen with Texas' Supreme Court. He too aims to restore balance to the GOP hotbed that is the court, but he's aiming his primary guns at altering court procedures, rules, and ethics. Cruz would like to install sound and video recording, not only in the Supreme Court but all Texas courts, as a way to provide "meaningful [public] access to courts"; he would like to change the court's code of conduct to forbid its justices from taking campaign contributions from any lawyers with cases pending before the court; and, he'd like to see the Supreme Court institute a so-called submission docket, where many pretrial issues are taken care of in written form – by the submission of motions and replies the justices read before submitting and order. (The court is responsible for revising many state court rules, including those on civil procedure.) The submission docket would cut down on court costs, Cruz says. And, he says, he would use his position to "encourage trial courts throughout Texas to change the way in which they operate."

Place 8: Kinds of Experience

It's no secret that the Texas Supreme Court is a really nice place to be if your business is big – for example, a big insurance company – but it's not such a nice place to land if you're anyone else – like a consumer, for example, or a working-class stiff. It's also no secret that the currently all-Republican court is, embarrassingly, nearly devoid of intellectual dissension – incredibly, during their last term, the justices ruled unanimously 90% of the time (and against consumers in 84% of the cases). Finally, it's also true that things are unlikely to change dramatically in this election year. However, there are a few Democratic challengers out there, including two well-qualified contenders for Place 8, where Texas' 13th Court of Appeals Justice Linda Yañez faces Galveston Co. District Judge Susan Criss for the chance to face off in November with GOP Justice Phil Johnson, appointed to the bench by Gov. Rick Perry in March 2005.

Yañez was first appointed to the appellate bench in 1993 by then-Gov. Ann Richards – the first Latina on a Texas appeal bench and the first woman appointed to the 13th Court. She has a lengthy and impressive résumé and an appealing personal story: As a child, she picked cotton in the fields of South Texas and veggies in the fields of northern Illinois; after law school she did legal aid work first in Chicago, before returning south to work with Texas Rural Legal Aid. In 1993, she served on incoming President Bill Clinton's transition team, bringing the newly elected president up to speed on immigration issues, and taught as a clinical instructor at Harvard Law School. She has served on the appeals-court bench for 14 years and has written nearly 800 opinions.

Criss served as both a prosecutor and defense attorney before she was first elected to the Galveston Co. bench in 1998, where she presides over criminal and civil matters – she is currently presiding over cases related to the 2005 BP refinery explosion in Texas City. Criss says her 20 years working in courtrooms combined with her experience as a trial judge puts her in the best position to take on the role of a Texas Supreme. "The Texas Supreme Court decides whether trials were conducted fairly and according to the law," she told The Dallas Morning News. "I know what happens in the real world of the courtroom. I have done much more than read transcripts of trials. And I cannot be outworked in a campaign." So far, Criss has raised slightly more than $300,000 in campaign cash.

According to Yañez, however, her lengthy career on the bench makes her the clear choice to win in March, the best suited to take on Johnson in November, and best poised to "bring balance" back to the Supreme Court bench: She is the only candidate with appellate experience, and her legal career is defined by serving as the "voice of the voiceless," she told the Morning News. "I thus understand the plight of consumers, patients, and workers – both in their daily lives and when confronted with challenging corporate America in the courts."

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Baltasar D. Cruz, Sam Houston, Texas Supreme Court, Linda Yañez, Susan Criss, Phil Johnson, election

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