An Austin legal watchdog group filed suit Wednesday to force action on a $29,000 ethics fine, levied against Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht in 2008, that has languished on appeal for 5½ years.
The motion from Texans for Public Justice seeks to remove Attorney General Greg Abbott from the case, saying Abbott has violated his legal duties by failing to pursue the case on behalf of the Texas Ethics Commission, which levied the fine.
“(Abbott) has helped his friend, former colleague and political ally by allowing the case to be inactive and dormant,” the motion said.
In Wednesday’s motion to intervene in Hecht’s appeal, Texans for Public Justice asked the court to disqualify Abbott, Republican candidate for governor, as the lawyer representing the ethics commission.
“By permitting, aiding and abetting, and acquiescing in almost six years of delay, Attorney General Abbott has violated his fundamental constitutional and statutory duties to ‘defend the laws’ of Texas and ‘represent the state in litigation’ … and he has failed to collect the fine that should have been collected years ago for the benefit of Texas taxpayers,” the motion said.
Hecht’s troubles date to the short-lived 2005 nomination of his ex-flame Harriet Miers to the U.S. Supreme Court. Hecht’s promotion of Miers to conservative groups and the media drew a Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct rebuke for violating state prohibitions on political activism by jurists. Arguing that the First Amendment trumps judicial canons, Hecht attorney Chip Babcock overturned the admonishment in 2006.
Hecht’s victory spawned new ethical issues. The Texas Ethics Commission ruled that Babcock’s discounted legal fees amounted to an in-kind contribution to Hecht worth $100,000. Hecht failed to report this contribution, which exceeded judicial campaign limits. Following a rare formal public hearing, commissioners ordered Hecht to pay a $29,000 fine on December 11, 2008. Justice Hecht appealed to a Travis County court on January 27, 2009 and the Attorney General quickly filed a response on behalf of the Ethics Commission. Since those filings in early 2009, the case has languished. Setting a record for the longest appeal of a state ethics fine, the case runs the risk of being dismissed for lack of prosecution.
“Abbott has a duty to prosecute this cold case and collect from Justice Hecht,” said TPJ Director Craig McDonald. “Instead, he has sat on his hands for six years to protect a friend and political crony. Texas law recognizes no crony exception. It’s time for Abbott to act—or to find someone who will.”
TPJ’s motion asks the district court to remove Abbott from the case if necessary and to impose appropriate sanctions for “his extraordinary and egregious pattern of inaction and neglect in apparent deference and favoritism toward his friend and former colleague.”
TPJ’s filing argues that Abbott’s inaction violates provisions of the Texas Rules of Judicial Administration, Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct, Texas Lawyers Creed and statutory and constitutional obligations of the Attorney General to promote the timely administration of justice. Abbott’s office, which has absolute discretion to aggressively pursue such matters, claimed in 2014 that plaintiff Hecht alone is responsible for advancing the case. Were this true, any defendant could beat any Ethics Commission rap simply by filing an appeal and then ignoring it.
I noted the five-year anniversary of the case last December. I get that TPJ could have timed the filing of their complaint differently, but come on. Abbott has time to file a zillion lawsuits against the federal government while simultaneously defending losers like the same sex marriage ruling, the school finance ruling, and the voter ID ruling, but he can’t assign a junior attorney or two to push some paper on this? His priorities as AG have always been the interests of the Republican Party first, and everything else second. There’s really no excuse for this. You can see the complaint TPJ filed here, the Ethics Commission order against Hecht from 2008 here, and their timeline of events here.