Ill. And Texas Firms Dominate State High Court Donations

Law360 (October 26, 2020, 8:50 PM EDT) -- Chicago personal injury law firms and Texas-based defense firms anted up big in this year's state supreme court races, bolstering Illinois Democrat and Texas Republican judicial candidates to the top of those securing law firm and lawyer contributions this election season, new data shows.

The five candidates that have received the most in campaign donations from law firms and lobbyist groups during the 2020 election season are Brett Busby, R-Texas; Margaret Stanton McBride, D-Illinois; Jane Bland, R-Texas; Nathaniel Howse Jr., D-Illinois; and Jesse Reyes, D-Illinois, according to a running tally of state judicial election campaign reports.

The donations range from $165,550 for Reyes to $260,100 for Busby. All three of the Democratic candidates in the top five already lost during a seven-person primary battle.

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The data was collected by the National Institute on Money in Politics from state campaign donation reporting agencies. As of Friday, when the data was accessed by Law360, the organization had collated 1,091 of the total 1,157 reports that states are expecting to receive before the election.

Democratic judicial candidates in Illinois and Republican candidates in Texas are highly likely to win their races, or are running unopposed, and yet they're still garnering large amounts of campaign donations from law firms, according to Douglas Keith, a counsel in the Democracy Program at NYU's Brennan Center for Justice.

"Judicial elections create an awful dynamic in which lawyers and law firms that appear before the judges are regularly making contributions to those judges, not necessarily because they think they're going to influence the race but because of the dynamic between the judges and law firms that appear before them," Keith said.

Some firms may want to make a big donation so that when they appear in court, the judge knows that the firm supported their campaign, said Keith, who advocates for stronger recusal rules around judges who take donations from the legal community.

Law firms have argued that because they are often familiar with the judges before which they appear and how those judges approach their work, that they are well-positioned to make educated campaign donations based on that knowledge.

Of the top 20 law firm and lobbyist donors to state supreme court candidates so far this election season, 14 are plaintiffs-side personal injury firms that are either headquartered in or have a strong presence in Illinois.

There are two Supreme Court seats up for grabs in the election in Illinois, one in the First District and one in the Fifth.

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Judy Cates, a Democrat, is facing off against David Overstreet, a Republican, in the Fifth District race.

In the First District, incumbent P. Scott Neville, a Democrat, is running unopposed in the general election. But, he faced a fierce primary race in which he came up against six challengers: Jesse G. Reyes, Sheldon Harris, Cynthia Cobbs, Margaret Stanton McBride, Daniel Epstein and Nathaniel R. Howse.

The remaining law firms on the top 20 list are largely Texas-based defense firms that donated primarily to Republican candidates for the Texas Supreme Court. Those firms include Vinson & Elkins LLP, Kelly Hart & Hallman, Haynes and Boone LLP and Bracewell LLP.

There are four spots open on Texas' high court in 2020. In one, Chief Justice Nathan Hecht is facing down two challengers for his seat, Democrat Amy Clark Meachum and Libertarian Mark Ash.

In another race, incumbent Jane Bland is running against Democrat Kathy Cheng, while incumbent Republicans Brett Busby and Jeffrey S. Boyd are up against Democrats and a Libertarian looking to take their seats.

V&E donated $45,000 each to Busby and Bland. Meanwhile, Kelly Hart donated $15,000 to Bland and $20,000 to Busby, and Haynes and Boone donated $10,000 to Bland and $15,000 to Busby.

Bracewell made donations to both Republican and Democratic candidates — a combined $25,000 to Republicans Bland and Busby and a combined $5,500 to Democrats Gisela Triana, Peter Kelly and Jerry Zimmerer.

In a statement Monday, Vinson & Elkins PAC treasurer David Wall said that Texas Supreme Court justices "must" run very expensive statewide campaigns as a result of the current electoral system in place.

"We believe all lawyers should contribute so judges will not have to be at the mercy of special interests for support," Wall said.

The firm has supported efforts for electoral reform of the state's judicial system for decades and supports current efforts at reform being made by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, he added.

"As long as we have our present system, however, we will continue to contribute as we believe lawyers supporting good judges makes the system healthier," he said.

Clifford Law Offices founder Robert A. Clifford says his firm too is donating money in an effort to combat special interest groups and more specifically corporate interests and dark money that he says the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has funneled into Illinois' judicial races.

"Clifford Law is proud to be number one to support our elected judges at the trial, appellate and supreme court level," Clifford said. "It is the only way to combat the dark money that has been flowing into the state of Illinois."

--Additional reporting by Diana Novak Jones. Editing by Emily Kokoll and Orlando Lorenzo.

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