Dialing for Defense Dollars

I just got a telephone call at the office from someone asking me for a campaign contribution for the judge of a Harris County district (felony) court, before whom I occasionally practice and before whom I have a case right now.

This has never happened to me before. I don’t know if it’s happening now because the Republican incumbent judges are running scared in Harris County (they should be), or because I’ve never appeared on this particular mailing list before (I contributed to the campaign of another incumbent, who actually deserves to keep her bench).

I’ve never had any problems with this judge, though I’ve heard horror stories from other defense lawyers. But his Democratic opponent is a defense lawyer who is highly qualified for the position. So the only reason I would contribute to this incumbent’s campaign would be if I thought he would give me a little quid for my quo.

It never occurred to me that my clients would benefit from my contributing to this judge’s campaign, so I never even considered contributing. But this direct solicitation call raises the spectre of my clients in this particular court suffering because I did not pay up when asked.

Corruption takes many forms, and the Texas Canons of Judicial Ethics require judges to avoid the appearance of impropriety and to “act at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary.” Directly soliciting lawyers who appear before you for contributions creates the appearance of impropriety. It damages public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary.

Even if there will be no retaliation (and I hope there will be none, since there’s no way in Hell I’m going to contribute), it’s grossly inappropriate.

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0 responses to “Dialing for Defense Dollars”

  1. Judicial offices should be non-partisan elections IMHO. Not that it would really change the contribution issue tremendously, but I just felt like mentioning it.

  2. It’s that little nagging feeling that someone will whisper in the judge’s ear that Bennett refused to give a dime. Nah, that would never happen.

  3. I agree with you point, but I have to wonder that if the Criminal Judges didn’t get contributions from the Defense Bar, who would they get donations from? The vast majority of the Harris County population could care less who sits on what bench, because they probably won’t have to go down there. The prosecutors are broke. That leaves the Defense Bar as the biggest source, logically.

    I don’t think there should be a bar on defense attorneys contributing something to a judicial campaign, even if they have a case pending in it (because face it, if you don’t have a case in there today, you might easily tomorrow). Of course, one of the things I learned working on Kelly Siegler’s campaign was that you aren’t going to get money if you don’t ask for it. It’s a skill that would make me uncomfortable.

    However, I tend to agree with you about the actual calling and soliciting for it. Was it the Judge or somebody working on his campaign.

  4. Mark,

    Many states have prohibited Judges or their staff’s from soliciting campaign funds, see http://www.fec.gov/pubrec/cfl/cfl00/cfl00chart2b.html.

    While there are stories about this problem during every election cycle, the legislature ignors the problem. Politicians cleaning up politics, right.

    In my later years of practice, I just stopped making contributions or going to functions, even for friends because it made me unconfortable, knowing that I would be practicing in front of them.

  5. I tried a death penalty capital where the judge brought myself and the other prosecutor back in chambers to help decide who to appoint on the case as the defense attorney. (??) After the FDA “wheel” gave us some names, we suggested a very competent, experienced defense lawyer as first chair and the judge agreed. Then, for second chair, the judge told us he wanted to appoint a complete and total idiot. I would not have trusted this guy to handle a DWLS properly, much less a case with someone’s LIFE at stake. With my customary lack of tact, I blurted out, “Judge, that guy is a moron!” whereupon the judge gave me a hurt look and protested “But [Idiot’s Name] is one of my biggest campaign contributors.”

    Welcome to the land of elected judges.

  6. Trafficnerd, I agree 100%.

    SHG, if I thought that was likely I’d’ve gone whole hog and named names.

    AHCL, where is it written that candidates for judge should be raising money from anyone? It wasn’t the judge, but someone working on his campaign.

    Jigmeister, I don’t know if this was a member of the judge’s court staff.

    Anon, [Idiot’s Name] probably needed the second-chair experience to get qualified as first-chair DP counsel. (And, by the way, I find it interesting that that judge seeks opposing counsel’s input on whom to appoint. (Is that what (??) suggests?)

  7. Yes, that’s what the (??) was for. I appreciated getting the input, but it’s the kind of thing that could look funny to an impartial observer.

    Idiot did not need the experience. Idiot had no business being in felony court. There’s no comfort in stomping all over someone because they’re incompetent. I feel much better about convictions when the defendants are represented by good attorneys.

    Luckily, we dissuaded the judge from appointing Idiot, because, as it turned out, the 2nd chair lawyer had to play a much larger role than anyone would have imagined. The def is on death row because that’s where he belongs, not because he had a bad lawyer, and that’s how it should be.

  8. Mr. Bennett and Jigmeister are right on point. It is obvious,in at least appearance, that an attorney who gives money to a judge and subsequently represents a client in that court may receive quid pro quo preferential treatment. That is enough to preclude it. A judge soliciting money from an attorney who is actually before that judge concurrent with the solicitation should be sanctioned.

  9. Mark, I got the same call and it made me feel almost obliged(“Do you want to help him?”. I have tried a couple cases before the judge and although he was very tough and expeditious, I found him to be fair overall. I don’t believe this was intended as a shake down, but do agree that it could create the appearance of impropriety. For some reason the phone call seemed more intimate than the normal mailers, but I assume it was made from the same list purchased from one of our bar associations.

    By the way, thanks for your last comment on my blog! 🙂

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