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Judicial Campaigns and Elections: Texas

Campaign Financing

Between 1980 and 1986, campaign contributions to candidates in contested appellate court races increased by 250%. During the same period, there was a 450% increase in the number of contributions in excess of $5,000 to candidates in contested appellate court races. The 1988 supreme court elections were the most expensive in Texas history, with twelve candidates for six seats raising $12 million.

Between 1992 and 1997, the seven winning candidates for the Texas Supreme Court raised nearly $9.2 million dollars. Of this $9.2 million, more than 40% was contributed by parties or lawyers with cases before the court or by contributors linked to those parties. The perceived impropriety of judges soliciting and accepting large campaign contributions from attorneys and parties who appear before them has been the subject of numerous newspaper and magazine articles, as well as television broadcasts. In 1987 and again in 1998, 60 Minutes aired segments that examined whether justice was for sale in Texas, and Frontline explored the same question in 1999.

In the early 1980s, plaintiff lawyers were the largest contributors to Texas judicial candidates, but in the late 1980s and 1990s, they were replaced by civil defense attorneys, doctors, insurance companies, and other business interests. In recent years, major contributors to judicial candidates have included the Texas Association of Business and Chambers of Commerce, the Texas Trial Lawyers Association, the Texas Medical Association, Texans for Lawsuit Reform, the insurance industry, energy and natural resources companies, and the Republican and Democratic Parties. Texans for Public Justice, a legal watchdog group founded in 1997, tracks campaign contributions to public officials in Texas, including appellate judges, and has issued a number of reports that examine the relationship between campaign contributions to judges and judicial decisions. Their most recent report, Courtroom Contributions Stain Supreme Court Campaigns, reveals that supreme court candidates receive two thirds of their campaign contributions from lawyers and litigants who appear before them. Other reports include Checks and Imbalances, Payola Justice, and Lowering the Bar.

In 1995, the Judicial Campaign Fairness Act was passed to regulate financing of judicial elections.  Under the JCFA:

  • Individual contributions to candidates for the supreme court and court of criminal appeals are limited to $5,000. Individual contributions to all other judicial candidates are limited to between $1,000 and $5,000, depending on the population of the judicial district.
  • Contributions from law firms and members of law firms are limited to $50 if the aggregate contributions from the firm and its members exceed six times the maximum individual contribution for that judicial office.
  • Candidates for the supreme court and court of criminal appeals may accept up to $300,000 in total contributions from PACs. Court of appeals candidates are limited to between $52,500 and $75,000 in total PAC contributions, depending on the population of the judicial district. Total PAC contributions to all other judicial candidates are limited to between $15,000 and $52,500, depending on the population of the judicial district.
  • Voluntary expenditure limits are established. Candidates must file a sworn declaration of their intent to either voluntarily comply with or exceed these limits. If a candidate who complies with the expenditure limits is opposed by a candidate who does not comply, the complying candidate is no longer bound by either contribution or expenditure limits. Expenditures by candidates for the supreme court and court of criminal appeals are limited to $2 million. Expenditures by court of appeals candidates are limited to between $350,000 and $500,000, depending on the population of the judicial district. Expenditures by all other judicial candidates are limited to between $100,000 and $350,000, depending on the population of the judicial district.
  • Contributions to and expenditures by committees formed to support a judicial candidate, oppose the candidate's opponent, or assist the candidate as an officeholder are considered contributions to and expenditures by the candidate. Contributions to and direct expenditures on behalf of complying candidates from a political party are considered expenditures by the candidate.
  • Contribution limits are per candidate, per election. However, the primary election and the general election are considered to be a single election if the candidate is unopposed in the primary or if the candidate does not have an opponent on the ballot in the general election. The various contribution limits for that "single election" are increased by 25 percent, but the amount of the increase may only be used for officeholder expenditures.

For more information about the Judicial Campaign Fairness Act, see Judicial Selection Reform: Examples from Six States.

See below for National Institute on Money in State Politics data on contributions to state high court candidates.

Amounts raised by each candidate at the most recent election cycle:

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