The former Houston appellate justice, appointed by Gov. Rick Perry to take Justice Scott Brister’s suddenly vacant seat last October, won her primary against Rose Vela by a comfortable margin — but not before several minor dustups between the two candidates. When news of a Guzman endorsement from Cathie Adams, then serving as chair of Republican Party of Texas, came to light, Vela's camp complained it was being punished for her husband's endorsement of U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in the governor's race. Vela’s husband, a Corpus Christi-area attorney, told The Associated Press that an ally of the governor's urged him to renounce his support of Hutchison if he wanted his wife to nab the judicial appointment that ended up going to Guzman.
Amid the campaign fracas, Guzman wrote her first opinion on the court in January, just three months after her appointment. Now she’s crisscrossing the state for her general election race against Democrat Blake Bailey, a trial lawyer from Tyler. Libertarian Jack Armstrong is also running for the Place 9 seat.
During a campaign stop in El Paso last week, Guzman talked with the Tribune by phone about being the first Latina on the court, the pros and cons of having judges run for elections, how justices on the all-Republican court often disagree in their deliberations and why she won't comment on whether Texas has seen enough tort reform. An edited transcript and full audio version of the interview follow.
TT: When you were first appointed to the court, a lot was made out of the fact that you are the first Hispanic female on the court. How do you feel about that?
Guzman: I'm honored to be the first Latina on the court and [to] be on a court that is really the most diverse court. Texas has an amazing composition of justices, and I hope that it inspires children across the state to dream big and to work hard and to realize that Texas is a place where extraordinary things can happen to very ordinary people through hard work and education.
TT: What has it been like having to campaign during your first several months on the court?
Guzman: I work hard. I work hard on the court. I have kept up with all of my responsibilities on the court and also with my commitment to get my message out to the voters. It is tough, but we all rise to the occasion. That’s what hardworking Texans do.
TT: Has it given you a perspective on judicial elections?
Guzman: Yes. It’s a lot of work. But the great thing about campaigning in the state of Texas has been the opportunity to meet so many great Texans. That's the upside. The downside is that we need to take time away from our other responsibilities to get out there.
TT: Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson and former Justice Harriet O'Neill have both expressed support for a merit-retention system. Do you think the election system needs reforming?
Guzman: There are pros and cons to every system of electing our judges. One thing we need is more dialogue. We really need to get our citizens to focus on this important issue for our state. And every system, I think, could be improved. I would hope that we would continue the dialogue. I would hope that our legislators are able to speak for the citizens that they serve and that any changes represent the will of our citizens. But, yes, of course, the arguments are very strong in support of making some changes to the way we select judges in Texas.
TT: You've been a judge since Gov. George W. Bush appointed you to a trial court in 1999. You then moved on to Houston's 14th Court of Appeals, and now you're on the Supreme Court. How have you seen the judiciary change since then?
Guzman: The experience and participating on three levels of the Texas judiciary has really given me unique insight into the skill set required for success on the bench and the ability to serve citizens in the manner they deserve to be served. When you look at judges, you are looking at integrity, their professional competence, their intellectual capacity.
TT: Gov. Perry recently announced on the campaign trail that he though the state needed more tort reform. Does Texas need more tort reform?
Guzman: It's not my place to make policy decisions. I am a judge. I do not legislate from the bench — that is not my role. Policy decisions are made in the Legislature, and I am going to defer to them, because they speak for our citizens. We have three branches of government, and I really do respect the limits on judicial review. My job as an appellate justice is not to make policy, not to make legislative decisions about issues like that.
TT: But from your experience in the judiciary, have you seen a problem with frivolous lawsuits in the state?
Guzman: Again, that's not a judicial issue. We have statutes and precedents that define what the limits are on lawsuits whether they are merit-based or not, so those are not decisions that we make in a vacuum. Those are decisions that are made most of the time in the legislature, so as a judge, I'm not going to be making policy decisions about those things. That's just not what I do.
TT: Are there any areas where you think the current makeup of the all-Republican court is too one-sided? Do you disagree enough?
Guzman: Everyone there checks their politics at the door. We don't bring them in the conference room. They aren't part of the decision-making process. One thing I'll point out is that, the way we decide cases, we all meet and have this dialogue and this debate. There is a diversity of opinions, and of views, and they are rooted firmly in interpretations of the law. While the statistics may show that ultimately a certain percentage of opinions are unanimous, they rarely start out that way. Frankly, that's what makes the process, as an appellate jurist, so fascinating: this ability to deliberate the finer points of law with our colleagues.
TT: Is there anything you'd do differently, that you’ve learned?
Guzman: I brought to the court over eight years of appellate experience. I had ruled on over 2,000 appellate matters. I had written almost 500 opinions. So I had a lot of experience in appellate review. But, of course, I’ve learned so much since being on the court, and I don’t know that I’ve learned anything that would cause me to do anything differently.
TT: Where did you feel like your voice on the court made the most difference?
Guzman: It’s our responsibility as one of nine to work really hard to be prepared to discuss the issues — you know, we get these petitions for review, we review them, we bring them to conference. I think that bringing the appellate experience to the court and being able to get in there and engage immediately [is] how we make a difference. To be able to thoroughly engage in this dialogue about the legal issues presented and hopefully get an outcome that reflects an appropriate well-reasoned analytical framework for the opinion.