The Race To Balance Out the Supremes

Dems, Libertarians vie to break GOP lock

Three seats are up for grabs on the nine-member Texas Supreme Court, all of which are held by Republican incumbents – Debra Lehrmann in Place 3, Paul Green in Place 5, and Eva Guzman in Place 9. There is little doubt that the GOP will keep its lock on this bench; nonetheless, there are Democratic and Libertarian hopefuls in each race, battling to bring a bit of balance back to the court.

Below is a brief overview of each of the candidates vying for Texas' highest civil bench.

Place 3

Debra Lehrmann (R)

A little more than a month after Lehrmann knocked out opponent and state representative-turned-motivational speaker Rick Green in a run-off battle to fill the seat being vacated by the retiring Justice Harriet O'Neill, O'Neill announced she would resign early, allowing Gov. Rick Perry the opportunity to tap Lehrmann for the job months before the election. The University of Texas School of Law grad served for more than two decades on the bench in Tarrant County, where she developed expertise in family law – an area of law not well-represented on the Supreme Court, which is the final arbiter of most cases involving families and children. Regardless of political affiliation, Lehrmann's accomplishments are impressive. Even so, her official endorsements (notably from Texans for Lawsuit Reform, which champions the very kind of tort reform that advocates say has hamstrung litigants without money or power, and from choice foes Texans for Life) and campaign website talking points speak directly to a conservative base hung up on the idea of "activist" judges. (To be fair, each of the Republicans vying to keep their spots on this bench pander to that particular GOP lexicon.)

Jim Sharp (D)

Sharp did time in the Legislature in the 1970s and 1980s, as a legislative aide and as a House staffer, before turning to private practice and eventually to his focus on the judiciary: In 2008 he was elected to the Houston-based 1st Court of Appeals, one of 14 intermediate appeals courts in the state, where he is the only Dem judge. He has now set his sights on the all-GOP Supreme Court, telling Dems at this year's state convention that the courts have tipped too far to the right, with 86% of all appellate courts seats in the state now held by the GOP. His bombastic style hasn't exactly won him any brownie points with many Dems, especially after he told the Statesman's Ken Herman in September that he thought Bill White was "good" but that just having been a mayor probably wasn't the best résumé for a governor and that in a "racist," "red," "sexist," anti-labor state, putting Linda Chavez-Thompson, a labor "boss," on the ticket probably wasn't a good move. At the very least, Sharp's comments have called into question his judicial temperament.

William Bryan Strange (L)

This is the second time Strange has run for statewide judicial office. In 2008 he ran for the highest criminal court, the Court of Criminal Appeals, in an attempt to unseat incumbent Republican Judge Cathy Cochran. Strange is a "semi-retired" corporate lawyer from Dallas who spent 20 years practicing corporate law and another 10 on the "business side" of real estate, according to an entry on AustinPost.org. There is little other information on Strange or any other Libertarian judicial candidate.

Place 5

Paul Green (R)

San Antonio native Green practiced civil law for 17 years before being elected to the 4th Court of Appeals in 1994. He stayed there for a decade before moving to the Supreme Court in 2004. Green has distinguished himself as a moderate jurist, who appears an exception to the otherwise pervasive characterization of this court as reflexively pro-business and big-money interests. He's written persuasive opinions and a number of dissents where he has taken the majority to task for being too favorable to monied and other interests. Recently, Green got a favorable nod from The Dallas Morning News' editorial board, which noted that Green is a "steady justice," who is neither "maverick" nor "rubber stamp."

Bill Moody (D)

Moody worked for 11 years as a prosecutor before becoming judge of El Paso's 34th District Court (which hears both civil and criminal cases), where he has served since he was first appointed to the bench in 1986. He has run three times for a seat on the Supreme Court, in part on a platform of restoring balance to the court. He argues (on his campaign's Facebook page) that his trial court experience is invaluable – experience his opponent does not have – and that the court must be "absolutely neutral and fair to all," another dig at the court's sometimes spotty reputation. While it is true that the court lacks a balance, it seems unclear that Green is the candidate best suited to Moody's crosshairs.

Tom Oxford (L)

Aside from a personal bio on the website for Beaumont personal injury law firm Waldman Smallwood, where he works as a managing attorney, there isn't much information available about Oxford's candidacy. According to his law firm bio, Oxford spent 10 years managing a nonprofit legal aid office before joining the Beaumont firm, where he says he enjoys practicing personal injury, civil rights and immigration law.

Place 9

Eva Guzman (R)

When Guzman assumed her seat on this bench in October 2009, it was the third time she'd been appointed to sit as a judge. In 1999, she took on her first judicial job after appointment by then-Gov. George W. Bush to Harris County's 309th District Court; in 2001, Perry appointed her to the Houston-based 14th Court of Appeals – and it was Perry who elevated her to the Supreme Court last year after Justice Scott Brister abruptly retired. Guzman, who is married to a Houston police officer, is the first Latina to sit on the highest civil bench. Almost immediately after taking the new job, Guzman drew a GOP primary opponent but won handily in the March primary. She's been endorsed by the usual suspects – including Texans for Lawsuit Reform, the Texas Association of Business, and the Texas Alliance for Life – and like other GOP judge contenders promises she will "strictly interpret the Constitution."

Blake Bailey (D)

Tyler resident Bailey is board certified in both personal injury and civil appellate law and has been practicing law for more than three decades and focuses his advocacy as a champion for the "common worker against large corporations and insurance companies," as he writes on his law firm's website. Bailey has campaigned strongly as an antidote for what ails the Supreme Court. In an op-ed posted to the Texas Democratic Party website, Bailey writes that although he fights "hard for the rights of my clients," he's found in recent years that the "deck has been stacked against them" on appeals before the state Supremes. "I say this because several times, in trying to settle cases through mediation, insurance company representatives have told me they weren't concerned about the outcome of a jury trial because an appeal to the Texas Supreme Court virtually assured them a victory." (Bailey cites a report from a researcher at UT Law to back up his anecdotal information.) Bailey cautions that he isn't interested in reflexively ruling the other way; rather, he notes on his website, he wants to "restore balance" and create a "level playing field" at the court.

Jack Armstrong (L)

An Austin attorney and real estate broker, Armstrong is running as a candidate "of the people." He complains that the Supreme Court has been in control of either plaintiffs attorneys or champions of big business for far too long. "To me," he said in an online radio interview, "neither one is good." He notes that his main opponent, Guzman, is clearly bought and paid for by Perry and the GOP political machinery, which he argues offers at least an impermissible appearance of impropriety. Still, it isn't entirely clear how well Armstrong's legal background and experience would position him to take on the heavy work load at the state's civil court of last resort.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Texas Supreme Court, Elections, Election 2010, Eva Guzman, Jack Armstrong, Blake Bailey, Debra Lehrmann, Jim Sharp, William Bryan Strange, Bill Moody, Paul Green, Tom Oxford, courts

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