Furor over Mikal Watts “judges owe us” letter

by Walter Olson on September 26, 2007

Looks as if the legal tactics of one politically ambitious Texas plaintiff’s lawyer may have blown up in his face:

Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Mikal Watts of San Antonio once tried to pressure a legal opponent into a $60 million personal injury lawsuit settlement by claiming he would have an advantage on appeal because of his firm’s “heavy” campaign financial support to an appellate court’s justices, “all of whom are good Democrats.”

A “nine-page letter Watts wrote to opposing counsel in 2001 apparently was intended to make an out-of-state corporation think the donations could sway” the 13th Court of Appeals in Corpus Christi. The letter was sent to a defense lawyer representing American Electric Power in an auto-accident case. “Politely put, south Texas venue by itself makes this a very dangerous lawsuit,” Watts wrote.

What made the letter unusual was the linking of campaign contributions to sitting justices and the potential of an appeal.

The letter then noted that if the case went to appeal, it would go to the 13th Court of Appeals.

“This court is comprised of six justices, all of whom are good Democrats,” Watts wrote. “The Chief Justice, Hon. Rogelio Valdez, was recently elected with our firm’s heavy support, and is a man who believes in the sanctity of jury verdicts.”

The letter goes on to name Justices Errlinda Castillo, Nelda Rodriguez, J. Bonner Dorsey, Federico Hinojosa and Linda Yanez, and says his firm also has financially supported them. Hinojosa, Castillo and Dorsey are no longer on the court.

“Justice Bonner Dorsey, is more conservative than the others, but has been a friend of mine and the sanctity of jury verdicts for many years,” Watts wrote.

Watts and his law firm in 1999 donated $5,000 to Valdez and $2,500 to Rodriguez; in 2000, $15,000 to Hinojosa; and in January 2001, $10,000 to Castillo. The firm donated $50,000 to Yanez in 2002.

(R. G. Ratcliffe, “Senate candidate played up contributions to justices”, Houston Chronicle, Sept. 5; “Watts’ letter shows judicial reform need” (editorial), San Antonio Express-News, Sept. 15; PrairiePundit, Sept. 7 (quoting Houston Chronicle editorial that’s now offline)).

Blog reaction among both Texans and Democrats has been overwhelmingly negative. “This is bad,” writes the eponymous Kos at Daily Kos. Similarly: Burnt Orange Report, Urban Grounds, Eye on Williamson, Doing My Part for the Left, Capitol Annex. For links to some of our coverage of Watts’s colorful courtroom exploits over the years, see Jun. 9. As a matter of fact, Ted covered Watts’ eye-opening demand letter in a Point of Law post of Nov. 2, 2005.

{ 11 comments }

1 Ted 09.25.07 at 10:27 pm

Given this well-known history, it’s astonishing that so many on the left are complaining that the Texas Supreme Court reverses a majority of cases brought by civil defendant appeals, even to the point of bringing a bogus recusal motion on those grounds.

2 Eric @ New York Personal Injury Law Blog 09.25.07 at 11:05 pm

If I ever received a letter like that, invoking either friendship or donations, it would go straight to the disciplinary committee.

3 John Burgess 09.25.07 at 11:56 pm

My first stop would be every newspaper office I could think of. Then the disciplinary committee.

4 Melvin 09.26.07 at 1:53 am

Don’t forget the TV stations!! (And, of course, Overlawyered!)

5 Griffin3 09.26.07 at 9:25 am

You would think, even a democrat should be saying “Get this guy away from us! Use a stick! Use someone else’s stick!?!”

But with a letter making such threats, to actually leave written eveidence of such things: could you give Mr. Watts a poke from something beyond the (in Texas, completely useless, see previous post) disciplinary comittee? Is there no “judge tampering” equivalent of the jury tampering charge?

6 The Curmudgeonly Ex-Clerk 09.26.07 at 11:09 am

This strikes me as a fairly clear violation of the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct. See Rule 8.04(a)(5) (prohibiting lawyers from “stat[ing] or imply[ing] an ability to influence improperly a government agency or official”). Watts’s comments concerning his firm’s contributions to the justices logically could serve no other purpose than to imply improper influence.

7 Bert Brandenburg 09.26.07 at 1:48 pm

Beyond this case, there has been an enormous uptick in contributions by attorneys and others to judicial candidates around the country. My organization, Justice at Stake, has published several reports documenting what we call “The New Politics of Judicial Elections.” (More at http://www.justiceatstake.org)

8 Ted 09.26.07 at 9:59 pm

It’s fascinating how “Justice at Stake” has steadfastly ignored the efforts of trial lawyers to slant the judiciary, but raises the hue and cry from the rooftops when organizations that promote the rule of law ask for balance in judicial elections and selection. The fact that Justice at Stake, in reviewing this legitimate critique of Missouri’s judicial selection process, which is controlled by the Missouri Bar, which in turn is controlled by local trial lawyers’ groups, thought the outrage was the critique rather than the successful manipulation of the selection process, is telling.

9 Brooks 09.27.07 at 11:53 am

I don’t think you can defend those comments, but unfortunately, it’s something that happens on both sides. As a plaintiffs’ lawyer, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told by defense lawyers and adjusters that even if we receive a good verdict, we all know what’s going to happen at the Supreme Court.

“Given this well-known history, it’s astonishing that so many on the left are complaining that the Texas Supreme Court reverses a majority of cases brought by civil defendant appeals, even to the point of bringing a bogus recusal motion on those grounds.”

I have no idea what Ted means by this statement. It’s fairly obvious now that most of Texas (and therefore our juries) are Republican (I think that would be a given since we haven’t had a Democrat elected in any statewide election in years). And, with the exception of Corpus and El Paso, I think the courts of appeals are now Republican dominated. What is astonishing is that the Supreme Court can rule for Defendants over 80% of the time even after many cases have gone through conservative juries and conservative appellate courts. (And I think there’s a difference between saying the Supreme Court rules for defendants a “majority of the time,” as Ted says, versus the actual 80% sucess rate).

10 The Curmudgeonly Ex-Clerk 09.27.07 at 12:58 pm

Brooks:

Being told that the Supreme Court will reverse a jury verdict/trial court’s judgment is not equivalent to what Watt’s stated in his letter. Had Watt’s merely noted the orientation of the Corpus Christi Court of Appeals or the results one might expect from that court on appeal, his comments would be unobjectionable. What makes his comments objectionable is that he implied that the outcome in the appeals court would be swayed by campaign contributions made by his firm.

11 monkeyincognito 09.27.07 at 2:42 pm

Brooks, look at our esteemed Texas political class. They are not Republicans per se, but democrats that changed their party affiliation in order to get elected during the Reagan revolution. Case in point – Rick Perry, Carole Keeton-whatshernametoday, many of our state reps as well. I’m sure that would extend to judges as well.

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