Questions Of Qualifications, Ethics in Texas Court Race

A race for the Texas Supreme Court has an eight-year incumbent with the backing of the Republican establishment battling an anti-abortion activist and frequent political candidate known for his fight to keep the Ten Commandments displayed in his Houston courtroom.

Justice David Medina, who Gov. Rick Perry appointed in 2004, has widespread support among GOP elected officials. He said he had crossed the state introducing himself to voters. But in a little-watched down ballot runoff expected to generate low turnout, his efforts may not be enough to stop the grassroots campaign of his opponent, John Devine, a former district court judge.

Devine has focused on lobbing ethics attacks at Medina, who along with his wife was indicted in a 2008 arson case connected to a fire that caused $1 million in damage to their home. The district attorney threw out the charges; afterward, the Harris County grand jury’s foreman said the move was politically motivated.

Medina's lawyers have said the fire was caused by an electrical malfunction, and he said that has not come up on the campaign trail. Voters are instead looking at qualifications, he said, pointing to his own long involvement in conservative grassroots causes and the legal community.

“As I say I’m no Juanito-come-lately,” said Medina, who like his opponent describes himself as anti-abortion. Before joining the high court, Medina was Perry’s general counsel and a Harris County district court judge. He started his career in Houston as a litigator for Cooper Industries, Inc, a global electrical products manufacturer.

Some of Medina’s supporters worry Devine will capitalize on Republicans’ apparent reluctance to vote for an unknown candidate with a Hispanic surname, a dynamic to which political observers attributed the defeats of former Railroad Commissioner Victor Carrillo and former Supreme Court Justice Xavier Rodriguez.  

"It's obviously an issue because of Commissioner Carrillo's race and Justice Rodriguez's race," Medina said. "But I embrace that challenge. That's one of the reasons that I spend so much time getting out to meet the Texans across our great state. I want them to see who I am so that they can be comfortable with me."

On Wednesday, conservative website TexasGOPvote.com posted an interview with a former district court judge involved in Harris County Republican politics who said during a candidate screening luncheon that Devine told him he was running against Medina because he “needed a job” and because he could “beat someone with a Mexican name.”

After the interview published, Devine told The Texas Tribune in an email that “those words were never spoken.” In a previous phone conversation, he called claims that he was challenging Medina because he thought he could more easily win against a Hispanic “ludicrous.” 

“I’m running because he has no integrity,” he said.

Devine has also dealt with controversy. The Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct sanctioned him in 1997 for using his chambers for an event to announce he was running for Congress. A successful legal battle to keep the Ten Commandments hanging in his courtroom received national attention. And his activism on behalf of anti-abortion causes raised concerns when it appeared likely he would hear cases related to abortion laws.

Despite past criticism, Devine has not shrunk from making his anti-abortion ideology a prominent part of his judicial campaign. At a June rally in Fort Worth, he described his convictions as being “forged in the crucibles” of the anti-abortion movement and told the crowd he had been arrested 37 times while protesting abortion clinics. A campaign video relates a decision to continue a high-risk pregnancy, his wife Nubia’s seventh, which they said was likely to end in the deaths of both mother and child. Nubia Devine survived the birth. Their daughter lived for an hour after she was born.

Devine said this week he had been arrested during peaceful protests “several” times in the 1980s but did not remember exactly how many. His activism, he said, did not have any bearing on his ability to impartially interpret the law.

The Supreme Court seat is the sixth political office Devine has sought since he was elected district court judge in 1994. After eight years on the bench, he made an unsuccessful bid for Harris County attorney in 2002. He also ran for Congress in 1996 and 2004, and for a Texas House seat in 2004. In 2010, he lost a race for a district judge seat in Montgomery County.

In his current race, Devine said “trust and integrity” are the issues at play.

“What judges do is oftentimes behind closed doors. There is no ongoing vetting of cases in the public eye,” he said. “And you have to be able to trust what's going on.”

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