Supreme sense

The SE Texas Record Feb. 2, 2008, 7:00am

When you're a plaintiff's attorney, drama pays.

We rely on judges to rein in the most hyperbole-prone lawyer/storytellers in our courts, reminding them of their sworn duty to focus on what's germane, not incendiary and perhaps lucrative.

So we weren't surprised when, on behalf of clients suing over BP's Texas City explosion, Beaumont's Brent Coon started channeling John Grisham, treating the tragic accident like an international whodunit complete with filthy rich bad guys sporting British accents.

Situational aggrandizement is, after all, a specialty for some members of the plaintiff's bar.

But that doesn't explain why Galveston Circuit Court Judge Susan Criss thought it appropriate to encourage Coon's histrionics.

This week, Criss' would-be high court colleagues thankfully slapped down the worst of her anti-business cheerleading from the bench, upbraiding the Texas Supreme Court candidate for "abusing (her) discretion" in trying to strong-arm an outrageous Coon discovery request.

That request-- that ex-BP CEO John Browne come to Houston for a three-hour grilling by Coon on "what he knew"-- sounded like something out of a movie, replete with tough talk and pithy promises.

"If he doesn't come to us, we will go to him," Coon told one reporter at the time. "We are going to depose that man."

Do the words "shameless publicity stunt" come to mind?

Criss enthusiastically went along with it, seemingly pleased to legitimize Coon's self-serving London conspiracy theory and focus the media spotlight upon her little courtroom.

Did we mention Criss is running for the Texas Supreme Court?

The reality is that at the time of the Texas City explosion, Browne was overseeing a company with 115,000 employees worldwide. There was no evidence he knew anything relevant about the arcane inner-workings of one of his five North American refineries.

When headlines are pursued, truth is usually the first victim.

Coon knew that merely demanding that the head of one of Britain's largest companies sit for interrogation would generate a torrent of media attention and bring more public pressure on BP to fork over substantial settlements to his clients.

A judge with an eye on the ball would have recognized these tactics and swiftly rebuffed them. That Susan Criss chose the opposite approach speaks volumes about her priorities.

Texas doesn't need judges who measure their decisions against public opinion, rather than the rule of law.

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