Ever since Rick Green’s narrow March 2 win in the GOP primary for the Place 3 seat on the Texas Supreme Court set off a collective grumble from the legal establishment, there’s been a movement afoot to shore up support for his runoff opponent, Fort Worth family court judge Debra Lehrmann. Now the fruits of those efforts have ripened.
Today, five former state Supreme Court justices — Tom Phillips, Craig Enoch, Deborah Hankinson, Barbara Culver, and Alberto Gonzales — will throw their weight behind Lehrmann in her bid for the nomination.
“It’s not unprecedented, but it is rare” for a coalition of former justices to publicly push a candidate in a closely contested race, says veteran judicial campaign consultant Todd Olsen. (Olsen worked for Houston Court of Appeals Justice Jeff Brown, who lost to Green and Lehrmann in the primary.)
It last happened in 2004, when all of the then-living former justices endorsed San Antonio Court of Appeals Justice Paul Green’s successful primary challenge against sitting GOP Justice Steven Wayne Smith. Just two years earlier, Smith had ousted incumbent Xavier Rodriguez, who Gov. Rick Perry had just appointed to the bench, a win some attributed to the perils of having a Hispanic name in a Republican primary. (See Victor Carillo, David Porter, and “The Elefante in the Room”). From any perspective, however, it was an upset victory: The little-known Smith spent only $9,500 in his race, while Rodriguez doled out more than $550,000.
But the justices’ endorsements against Rick Green won’t turn into a smear-fest, according to Olsen, whose clients include many of the Supreme Court's roster, including Phillips, Enoch, Gonzales, and the former justice known as X-Rod. “These judges, probably more than anybody else, are for good jurisprudence,” he says, “You can’t get them to say a bad word about anybody, they just weren’t raised that way. They are about finding somebody who has a passion for the integrity and the reputation of the court.”
Still, there’s one recently retired Supreme Court justice who notably didn’t join the cabal endorsing Lehrmann. That would be Scott Brister, who stepped down from the court last August and did not endorse a candidate in the first round. The former Houston Court of Appeals chief justice says Green has his vote because of their past relationship and his familiarity with his work in the Legislature. Brister has given speeches to Green’s Patriot Academy and, like Green, is a proponent of the homeschooling movement.
The Waco native, who Perry named to the court in 2003 and won reelection in 2004, did admit his support of Green conflicts with his publicly stated belief that justices on Texas’ highest court should have experience on an appellate court, though he adds: “Obviously Republican primary voters disagreed with me.” (Green and Lehrmann beat out four candidates in the primary who all served on Texas appellate courts).
“For myself, being a trial judge and being an appellate judge are two entirely different jobs. You really have to start over when you become an appellate judge,” he says, “Given the two choices in the runoff, I don’t think [Green’s lack of judicial experience] is going to be that much of a liability.”
Two other big players in Texas judicial politics have given the nod to Lehrmann: Texans for Lawsuit Reform and TexPAC, the lobbying arm of the Texas Medical Association.
Powerbrokers have lined up against him, but Green, who did not respond to a request for comment, may still have reason to smile. His campaign has more 13,000 Facebook fans — a base that’s nothing to sniff at, especially in an obscure runoff race that doesn’t have a noisy gubernatorial contest drawing voters to the polls — and the support of rightwing celebrities like Chuck Norris, motivational speaker Zig Ziglar, and the stars of TLC's "18 Kids and Counting," Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar.
The electorate is also in an anti-incumbent state-of-mind, which could play to Green’s advantage as a candidate with no prior judicial or litigation experience. As Olsen says: “It’s kind of a year where ‘Hey, Bubba, the insiders are going against our guy’ is a powerful message.”