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Local Court Race Tests Judicial Campaign Law

A runoff for the state district court in Marshall, just east of Longview near the Louisiana border, has two Republicans slinging lawsuits and ethics complaints over provisions of the Judicial Campaign Fairness Act.

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In East Texas, a local court race could have statewide implications for a law intended to keep cash — and the potential corruption that comes with it — out of the judiciary.

A runoff for the state district court in Marshall, the Harrison County seat just east of Longview near the Louisiana border, has two Republicans slinging lawsuits and ethics complaints over provisions of the Judicial Campaign Fairness Act.

The Act, passed by the Legislature in 1995 after a rash of scandals and millions in contributions pouring into Texas Supreme Court races, imposes mandatory caps on contributions and voluntary limits on expenditures in judicial races. The voluntary provision is successful because of a built-in incentive to comply — if one candidate refuses, then everyone in the race is released from restrictions on contributions and expenditures. But it also works because of peer pressure. It’s highly unusual for a candidate to reject the spending limits, which vary depending on district size.

“It’s almost unheard of not to do so,” said Tom “Smitty” Smith, the Texas director of the political watchdog  group Public Citizen. “The question is where are you getting your money, and if you’re not complying, why can’t you abide by the same limits.”

In Harrison County, a candidate is taking the rare step of bucking the law’s voluntary limits. Brad Morin, a Marshall attorney challenging incumbent Judge William Hughey, told the Texas Ethics Commission he would reject the voluntary limits when he named his treasurer for the race in August 2011.

Since then, Hughey has filed two ethics complaints and a lawsuit against Morin, alleging illegal contributions and a violation of disclosure rules triggered by noncompliance with the  voluntary limits. Morin has retained Austin campaign finance lawyer Buck Wood and filed a counter claim against Hughey.

“I deeply regret that Judge Hughey has chosen to sink further in the mire of character assassination and behave in such an unethical manner toward myself and my character for political purposes,” Morin told the Marshall News Messenger last week.

In the May primary, Morin bested Hughey by fewer than 500 votes out of about 8,000 cast. The runoff promises to be heated, too. With two days of early voting counted, Republican turnout in Harrison County is high: 1800 people have already voted.

This is not the first matchup between the pair. They ran against each other for the same seat in 2008. Morin was on the ballot as a Democrat. Hughey defeated him and became the first African American to sit on the 71st district court bench. In their latest contest, Morin, who handles personal injury and family law cases in his private practice, has criticized Hughey for being soft on crime and running the court inefficiently.

Hughey has gone after Morin on ethical issues. But ironically, even though Morin refused to comply with the  voluntary spending limits, he has yet to  spend more than the $100,000 the act would have required for a race in a district of that size. The latest campaign finance filings show he’s spent roughly $60,000 since January, including at least $15,000 in TV spots. Hughey’s spent about $40,000 in that same time period.

Still, watchdog groups worry that if Morin’s example becomes an accepted practice, more money will seep back into judicial races.

“This legislation was developed and passed because of serious concerns about our judiciary being dependent on huge, large donors on their elections, and returning favors for favorable decisions,” said Smith. If more candidates refuse to comply with the limits, he said, it could be “disastrous to the independence of our judiciary.”

In early July, after Hughey filed a complaint with the Texas Ethics Commission because Morin did not include the required language on his political advertisements saying that he had chosen not to follow the act’s voluntary limits, Morin said he would correct the error and add the statement to his ads. At the time, he emphasized that he had complied with the act’s substantive requirements, according to the Marshall paper.

A week after filing that complaint, Hughey submitted a second one, accusing Morin of accepting illegal campaign contributions. He argued that Morin had exceeded the limits on contributions from law firms, and that he had exceeded the $1,000 limit on contributions from a single household in two instances by accepting separate $1,000 contributions from a husband and wife. The same week, Hughey filed a lawsuit against Morin for using those illegal contributions to distort his record on the court.

Since 1995, only 32 judicial candidates, mostly those for district and county courts,  have failed to comply with the Act or have rejected the voluntary limits, according to the ethics commission. No statewide judicial candidate has ever done so.

Though the move remains relatively uncommon, state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, who helped pass the act in 1995, said he was worried about an uptick in the number of candidates who aren’t complying with the voluntary limits.

“I am very concerned that we will see a flood of money that further erodes Texans belief in a fair and equitable justice system,” he wrote in an email. “We're moving back towards a Wild Wild West election system and that is not a good thing.”

But Morin’s case could serve as a deterrent to future non-compliers, the candidate said in an interview with the Tribune. He said his decision actually allowed his opponent to raise more money in the latest cycle.

The decision, he said, was “inadvertent” and not one he would repeat in the future.

“There wasn't a whole lot of thought that went into it,” he said.

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Courts Criminal justice State government Campaign finance Judiciary of Texas State agencies Texas Ethics Commission