Texas' system of electing judges has long drawn criticism about the potential influence of campaign donations in the outcome of cases. Plaintiffs’ lawyer John McCraw took those critiques one step further last month when he filed a motion asking two justices on Texas' 5th Court of Appeals to remove themselves from a case, implying that the pair voted to overturn his clients' $1 million jury verdict because of donations they'd received from two political action committees.
The court didn't like that. The judges not only declined to recuse themselves, they and their fellow justices sent McCraw's name to the general counsel of the State Bar Association for possible disciplinary action for insulting the court.
Calling judges crooks apparently is not a winning strategy to persuade them to change their minds.
The case involves two women who moved into Stoneleigh Place Apartments on Buckingham Road in Garland in February 2014. Before moving in, they told their apartment manager that a window latch was broken. Maintenance workers say they fixed the latch, but on June 22, 2014, a rapist entered through the unlocked window and violently assaulted both women.
They sued Stoneleigh Place's owner, AVPM Corp., and a jury awarded the women more than $1 million in damages. A three-judge panel on the appeals court overturned the verdict this summer, ruling that the crime was unforeseeable and the apartment complex was not negligent.
McCraw asked the entire 13-member appeals court to reconsider — minus Justices Craig Stoddart and Molly Francis, two of the three judges who unanimously voted to overturn the verdict. Stoddart and Francis each received $2,000 from the Texans for Lawsuit Reform PAC and the Apartment Association of Greater Dallas PAC a few days apart from each other and less than a month before they were assigned the case. Beyond suggesting that the donations were coordinated to influence the two justices, McCraw implied the pair deliberately sought to be assigned to the case. Selection of justices to hear appeals is supposed to be random.
“I believe somebody went in and said, ‘I want this case,’” McCraw told the Observer in late September. “These are the types of contributions meant to send a message.”
The full court, in rejecting McCraw's motion for Stoddart's and Francis' recusal, said McCraw should have filed it before the opinion was issued rather than "declaring a mulligan" after getting an unfavorable ruling. They also noted that the donations were not especially large and that McCraw offered no evidence that the money influenced the outcome.
"Zealous representation does not, should not, and cannot include degrading the court in the hopes of attaining a perceived advantage," the court's opinion states. It also says McCraw “has taken his disappointment with the outcome of this case to an inappropriate level by attacking the integrity of this Court.”
According to appellate attorney David Coale, the Bar could decide to begin disciplinary proceedings against McCraw, which could involve anything from a private reprimand to disbarment. He said they might also decide to do nothing.
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“It’s unusual,” Coale said about the court's referral. “Not unheard of, but rare.”
McCraw could still seek to bring the appeal to Texas Supreme Court.
He rejected the court's suggestion that he broke any rules.
"We're in it for the long haul, and we're going to follow this case wherever it goes," McCraw says.