Supreme Court judge worked both sides to reclaim legal fees

Rob Luke Mar. 28, 2007, 9:42am

Justice Nathan Hecht

AUSTIN -- A watchdog group wants to know who gave Texas Supreme Court Justice Nathan Hecht the money to pay the legal fees he incurred fighting a misconduct sanction.

And the two Republicans who sponsored bills aimed at sticking Texas's taxpayers with Hecht's $340,000 tab no doubt wonder why he was soliciting the money at all.

Hecht incurred the bill over several months last year while successfully appealing a sanction of improper conduct. The punishment was imposed last year by the Texas Judicial Conduct Commission.

During his appeal, Hecht retained high-profile Houston-based first-amendment attorney Chip Babcock. He is best known for successfully defending Oprah Winfrey against the beef industry's charge of slander.

The commission charged that Hecht gave 120 media interviews boosting Harriet Miers' recent nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court during his office hours. A special review court dismissed the sanction in October.

Hecht at first appeared to decide, as reported recently in LegalNewsLine, that the taxpayers of Texas should foot his legal bill. Republican State Representative Tony Goolsby and Republican State Senator Jeff Wentworth were enlisted to help change impeding statutes.

But Hecht decided to hedge that option by making a side-trip to the campaign-contribution well. He began soliciting money from the law firms and attorneys who have elected him to four successive six-year Supreme Court terms.

A recent report in Texas Lawyer revealed that in February alone Hecht pulled in "more than enough money from contributors" to pay his legal bills. Hecht had sent a mass-mailed letter asking his campaign contributors early in February for donations.

Part of Hecht's letter read: "I appealed [the commission's decision] - to clear my record, to ensure that other Texas judges would not be subjected to such abusive treatment by the Commission, and to uphold the rule of law."

Texas Watch, a consumer advocacy watchdog, now wants to know the names of Hecht's generous benefactors "sooner rather than later," reported today's Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Hecht has said he won't do so until July, the next time he is legally required to reveal such data.

"I think that anyone with any business before the court would find it important to find out who is bankrolling the justice's private legal expenses," Texas Watch Executive Director Alex Winslow told the paper.

The sudden appearance of Hecht's solicitation letter and legal fund contributions have embarrassed the GOP sponsors of pro-Hecht legislation. Rep. Goolsby and Sen. Wentworth both recently withdrew their bills after news broke of Hecht's swelling coffers.

Wentworth said he would never have introduced the bill seeking taxpayer redress if he'd known Hecht was seeking private donations for the fees at the same time, according to the Star-Telegram.

Some commentators say Hecht's actions look suspicious because law firms comprise most of his contributors.

"Hecht was indirectly signaling political favor to lawyers who send him money and those who don't are less likely to receive political favor," Todd Hill wrote in a posting today on BurntOrangeReport.

In his letter, Hecht told potential contributors that he would refund their donations "if I am successful in my claims against the state."

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