When Texas Supreme Court Justice Harriet O’Neill announced in August that she wouldn't seek re-election to her Place 3 slot, five Republican judges and one former state legislator jumped into the race. With all nine Supreme Court seats considered safe for Republicans — Democrats haven't held a seat on the court since 1998 — the fight, predictably, has been over who has the best conservative credentials. In a down-ballot race that's likely to go to a runoff, each of the candidates is also focusing on making the most campaign stops and winning the backing of the biggest-name supporters.
The wildcard looks to be Rick Green, who represented Dripping Springs in the state House from 1999 to 2003. Green has no judicial experience, but's he's been endorsed by conservative icon Chuck "Walker, Texas Ranger" Norris and a slew of conservative lawmakers, including state Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, and state Rep. Wayne Christian, R-Center.
George Christian (no relation), the president of the Texas Civil Justice League, says Green holds some appeal for the disaffected libertarian wing of the Republican Party. “He’s kind of running as the anti-lawyer," he says. "He’s almost running against the fact that the rest are judges.”
Those judges are Jim Moseley of the Fifth District Court of Appeals in Dallas, Rebecca Simmons of the Fourth District Court of Appeals in San Antonio, Jeff Brown of the 14th District Court of Appeals in Houston, Rick Strange of the 11th District Court of Appeals in Midland and Judge Debra Lehrmann of the 360th Judicial District in Fort Worth.
Green didn't respond to a request for an interview, but his campaign web site describes him as “an outspoken advocate of returning to the principles of the Declaration of Independence.” He frequently gives speeches on behalf of Wallbuilders, an Aledo-based organization focused on preserving America’s “moral, religious and constitutional heritage.” The site lists his biggest achievement during the 76th legislative session as the passage of a law barring cities from filing frivolous lawsuits against manufacturers and dealers of guns and ammunition. Green is also well known for an altercation with his successor, state Rep. Patrick Rose, D-Dripping Springs, whom he allegedly shoved and then took a swing at in 2006.
Moseley thinks voters on Election Day will value his 13 years of experience on an appellate court that hears all criminal and civil cases appealed from district courts. “I think it’s important at the highest court that a candidate has strong legal experience, and that’s mostly gained, or most generally gained, through service on the appellate courts,” he says.
No judicial candidate will advertise that he's interested in legislating from the bench, but Moseley — a co-founder of the Dallas chapter of the Federalist Society — goes further, saying he has a record of judicial opinions to prove he doesn't do it. “They want to know that the court is giving everybody a fair look at their case,” he says. “They want to know that the court isn’t going to legislate from the bench.”
Moseley has raised the most campaign cash — more than $79,000 in the last pre-election report — but none of the candidates has the funds for a big statewide campaign, so they’re relying on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter and long hours on the road to get their message across. He says he drove more than 1,500 miles to campaign stops last week.
Strange, meanwhile, says he hasn’t spent consecutive hours in his hometown of Midland since early January. The only candidate certified in oil, gas and mineral law, he says his appeal is his expertise in energy industry: Although the high court regularly hears cases related to energy, no sitting justice has a background in the field.
He, too, is running on his record. “Having been a judge for four-and-a-half-years," Strange says, "I can point to my record and say, 'Here’s what I’ve done, and here’s how I’ve done it. If you’re the least bit concerned, all of my opinions are available on the Internet. Look me up.'”
Even though the governor’s race has sucked up most of the oxygen in the media, Strange says voters intuitively recognize the importance of the Supreme Court. “The biggest challenge is just to get in front of people,” he says. In a statewide race, that means traveling to remote counties across the state, often speaking in front of small crowds — briefly. "We’ve spoken at events where we’ve had as little as 90 seconds and as long as a couple minutes,” he says.
Brown’s Web site notes that Harris County’s primary voter turnout is higher than that of comparable counties like Tarrant, Dallas and Bexar. Todd Olsen, his consultant, says the sheer size of the state and a modest war chest dictates the type of race that Brown is running. “We have staked our campaign on running a grassroots campaign that is statewide in nature and that’s because we knew we wouldn’t have the resources to run a million-dollar TV campaign,” he says.
Brown, who has the support of a number of Houston law firms, won the State Bar of Texas' judicial poll for Place 3 candidates. He has also been endorsed by Tom Phillips, a former chief justice of the Supreme Court, and the Houston Chronicle.
George Christian expects Houston’s historically high primary turnout to help Brown make a runoff, while Moseley and Lehrmann may end up splitting the vote in the Metroplex. “What’s really significant here is to what extent the candidates who are not from Dallas and Houston are able to put together enough of the rest of the very Republican areas in the race to put together a runoff,” Christian says.
Lehrmann, who has been endorsed by the Austin-American Statesman, says she can fill a gap in the court's experience on family law issues.
The court needs to have a broader, more diverse range of experience, which should include more experience in the areas of child protective services and family law," she says.
Simmons plans to publicize a considerable number of endorsements from newspapers in the state. “When they don’t know the judicial race, at least some people would look toward newspapers,” she says. She boasts backing from the Dallas Morning News, Fort Worth Star-Telegram and San Antonio Express-News. She also has the support of the Texas Medical Association PAC and Texas Hospital Association PAC.
Simmons repeats the refrain of judicial restraint expressed by several of the candidates: She says she doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel with each of her opinions. She touts her experience as well. In addition to her appellate court service, she’s worked in private practice and as a briefing attorney at the Supreme Court. In one case, she stepped in as a special commission justice when a sitting justice had to recuse himself.
Although she says Green is the least qualified of any candidate, Simmons jokingly covets his celebrity support: “I always feel ashamed that I don’t have a superhero.”
It's rare that a Supreme Court seat appears on the ballot without the incumbent — either elected or appointed — running for to keep it, so perhaps it was inevitable that so many Republicans would get into this race. “There hasn’t been any turnover for several years, so a lot of us have given this some thought,” Strange says. “Things happened so quickly, and so unexpectedly there really wasn’t time to see who else was getting involved.”
The winner of the GOP primary will face Democrat Jim Sharp and Libertarian William Bryan Strange III in November.