Mikal Watts: A Pattern of Buying Influence

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There's a very telling article in this morning's Houston Chronicle about the way Mikal Watts practices law. I'm not entirely surprised to learn that it's the same way he campaigns for public office — he throws money around and makes sure everyone knows he's throwing money around.

Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Mikal Watts of San Antonio once tried to pressure a legal opponent into a $60 million personal injury lawsuit settlement by claiming he would have an advantage on appeal because of his firm's “heavy” campaign financial support to an appellate court's justices, “all of whom are good Democrats.”

“This letter seems to confirm what everybody thinks about Texas justice. Very seldom is it this well-articulated,” said Craig McDonald of Texans for Public Justice, an organization that advocates for campaign finance reform. “It confirms the fact Texas courts are filled with politics.”

 And not just politics — pay to play politics.

What made the letter unusual was the linking of campaign contributions to sitting justices and the potential of an appeal.

The letter then noted that if the case went to appeal, it would go to the 13th Court of Appeals.

“This court is comprised of six justices, all of whom are good Democrats,” Watts wrote. “The Chief Justice, Hon. Rogelio Valdez, was recently elected with our firm's heavy support, and is a man who believes in the sanctity of jury verdicts.”

The letter goes on to name Justices Errlinda Castillo, Nelda Rodriguez, J. Bonner Dorsey, Federico Hinojosa and Linda Yanez, and says his firm also has financially supported them.

 Watts and his law firm in 1999 donated $5,000 to Valdez and $2,500 to Rodriguez; in 2000, $15,000 to Hinojosa; and in January 2001, $10,000 to Castillo. The firm donated $50,000 to Yanez in 2002.

I highlighted Linda Yanez' name because she's running for Texas Supreme Court (again). If Watts' outrageous claims are true, then not only is she a perennial candidate, she's one who can be bought.  Not what we need on the court or representing our party as a nominee for statewide office.

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35 Comments

  1. Positions
    I am still waiting to see where both these guys stand on the important issues. So far….nada!

    Its beginning to look as if the reason they don't want to give their positions is because they differ so much from the majority of voters.

    You can't hide your positions when sunning for Senator like you can when you run for state office.

  2. Justice Linda Yanez
    Wait a minute, you're painting with way too broad a brush.  Candidates generally take contributions from any legitimate and untainted source; Mr. Watts would certainly fall into that category.  I suspect if you did a search for everyone to whom Mr. Watts has contributed in the past there would be plenty of folks on the list whom many other Democrats have supported as well, judicial and otherwise. 

    I am a trial lawyer.  I don't know Justice Yanez well, but I am unaware of anything in her opinions which would indicate a general judicial bias.  I confess, though, that I have not done any research to see how cases from Mr. Watts' firm have fared before her.  Just because a lawyer claims that his contributions give him judicial influence, does not make that the case. 

    The 13th Court of Appeals in Corpus Christi is a true breath of fresh air among the various appellate courts in Texas.  If there is some meat there with regard to Mr. Watts' cases before Justice Yanez, fine.  If not, let's not paint the judge as a crook merely because she accepted a contribution from a Democrat.

  3. Seriously
    Can we actually have some sources cited where the argument is being made that she's a “pay to play” type of person.

    If not you just called out a sitting, Democratic, Court of Appeals Justice.

    And I would hope that a current officeholder is a perennial candidate. That's kind of how she keeps her seat.  Especially with their Court of Appeals district becoming more and more in play for Rs.

  4. Emiliano Zapata on

    Missing the Point
    Sen. John Cornyn will be on the ropes in the General Election for two main reasons.  His unwavering support for the Iraq War and unconditional support for AG Gonzalez.  If Watts wins the primary, it will be the pot calling the kettle black in reference to Watts criticizing Cornyn for advocating the politicization of the Justice Department.  The recent Houston Chronicle clearly points out that Watts is doing the exact same thing AG Gonzalez did with our courts — turning them into political whore brothels. It would be a shame to give Cornyn a pass on the AG scandal.  By electing Watts in the Dem Primary we miss out on a huge opportunity to hold Cornyn accountable for his wrongdoings.

        • Who
          And just who would you be to question anyones “bona fides”, Democratic or otherwise?

          Perhaps you'd be better served to realize there are many differing opinions in our party.

          Wishful thinking won't carry you very far. Cornyn may not be popular, but as far as I can tell both these guys have holes in their “bone fides.”

          Also don't get carried away with “the netroots” power or influence. Its nowhere near as vast as you'd like to think.

          Noreiga himself would tell you its “boots on the ground” that win.

          Last, I have begun to suspect that Noreiga favors illegal immigration, if thats the case, don't waste your vote.

          Well, really last….anything can happen between now and 2008. An eternity in political life, but if nothing does change…mark my words.

  5. Just a couple of questions
    1. Are you working for the Rick Noriega campaign? 2. In you final paragraph, you state of Judge Yanez, with seeming certainty, “…she's one who can be bought.” Do you have some evidence of this, other than Mikal Watts' statement? Accusing a sitting judge of this type of conduct is a serious charge, not one to be made lightly.

    As was pointed on another thread, this is a large “D” Democratic site, and I'd hope someone accusing a sitting Democratic judge of that type of malfeasance and illegal behavior would be damned sure before making that type of accusation public. If you're sure, let's press for impeachment, because we need to let the Republicans know we're serious about ethics in government

  6. Wait just a minute…
    Well, you mention you're not hired by Noriega.  This is true.  However, haven't you/your firm (Fero Hewitt Global) been employed by another Supreme Court candidate, one who might potentially be in a primary challenge against Judge Yanez?  Might THAT be your bias? 

    If anyone has actually read the Houston Chronicle article, they specially say this court has set aside judgements by Watts firm and she specifically SAYS that the court has no bias.  The article itself says there is absolutely NO basis/evidence that the court has a bias.

    This isn't an attack on Watts, this is just on opportunity for Nate to attack one of his client's opponents.  My question is, did HIS client take any money from Watts?  Furthermore, is taking a campaign contribution from him now a crime or even the least bit immoral?  I'd contend it's not.  His statement was monumentally STUPID.  He NEVER should have written that letter.  It feeds the frame that our justice system is for sale.  However, the justices on this court seem to be good/honorable people…

    And, for the record, our firm represents NOBODY on this court, another Austin firm does.  I'm just speaking truth to power on this one and trying to clear the air.  Oh, and another disclaimer… I support Noriega.

  7. Watts Influence
    One thing is always true about Texas Democrats — we don't have to worry about Republican attacks. We eat our own young. Look, I think Rick Noriega is a great guy. He ought to run for governor. He has a compelling story and would be a great candidate. Mikal Watts would be a great candidate too. He cared enough to put his money where his mouth is and try to unseat John Cornyn but most of the attacks seem to be coming from our own Democratic Party or from a newspaper that wants to see a hometown boy win the nomination. The story was biased and out of context. Read the comments from Chronicle readers and you may get a different perspective. Watts has given a lot of money to political candidates — thank goodness. He's willing to put up his own money to try to defeat Cornyn — thank you Jesus! Get off his back. Here's a little clue — a Republican friend of mine says it was Cornyn's folks who gave that letter to Noriega's campaign. It's not exactly new information. They want to run against Noriega because the GOP thinks that would be a cakewalk. Watts on the other hand can use his own money and raise a lot more and give Cornyn a good fight that might actually end up in a win for the Democrats. Boy that would be a change — we might actually win one with Watts.

    • Straydawg
      Welcome to the BOR community! Glad you joined, and hope you feel welcome here.

      I'm not going to comment on much of anything other than the Houston Chronicle piece. I worked with a lot of folks in their office over the past year, and R.G. Ratcliffe — the writer for the story — is not one to “root” for any candidate. He has actually written many, many articles and columns regarding money and politics — including one about how candidates fill out their ethics reports that looked not to favorably on many Houston politicians, Democrats and Republicans alike.

      Just my two cents, anyways.

      Welcome to the community, and I look forward to reading more of your comments in the future.

    • Eating our own young
      Remember LBJ's line. “You know the difference between cannibals and liberals? Cannibals only eat their enemies.”

      Its the darned truth.

      If I'm right about Noreiga's position in illegal immigration I just bet the Republicans are slavering at the mouth to run against him. Unpopular positions and underfunded…..heck, talk about an easy campaign.

  8. Judge Yanez answers the call
    first off, admittedly mr watts's comments specifically even REMOTELY implying direct influence on any court was inappropriate. that being said, mr nate, justice yanez did respond, although it seems you have a vulgar appetite for her blood in a showdown at the ok corral. i find it highly more inappropriate, mr nate, that you have (in the eloquently pointed out bias that you seem to have against justice yanez) rushed to judgment so as to indicate that you possessed this inane opinion prior to ever laid an eye on the chronicle article. furthermore, you opined that judge yanez is a perennial candidate and she ran an “unimpressive campaign”. let me first say that the implication that because she lost ONE election where an entire slate of democrats lost, she should abandon the call, is beyond even qualifying a response, but i am just so beside myself at your unbelievably nasty and almost criminal “assertions” and accusations of the senior judge of the 13th court of appeals, which by the way is one of the only bastions of real democratic thought in texas. if you were to even remotely educate yourself, you would read about justice yanez' qualifications, credentials, and her undying dedication to the law. and by the way, her personal journey and story is quite compelling as well. on a separate note, fyi, she did not look in the mirror one day and annoint herself a supreme court candidate- she answered the call of the party leadership, which, thankfully tried to create a viable ticket to represent texas, including texas democrats. she was recruited to run, and you are punishing and chastising her for running “again”. thank goodness every texas democrat doesn't have your attitude. although i'm wondering if you're even a democrat. sorry, i just pulled a nate- i assumed. because of an inappropriate comment made about an entire court, one justice is being hung out to dry, with malice and irresponsibility. kudos to those on the chron site and this one who understand the unbelievably inappropriateness of nate's comments.

  9. Hold on just a minute
    For one, electing judges is our problem. Combine that with Texas' ethics “suggestions” and we've got a system ripe for injustice. You don't have to be a South Texas native to have heard about Watts' Shady McGrady courtroom deals… but who's to say he hasn't made threats of financing opponents to justices, either? He's a rich lawyer and enjoys a reverance for his big money promises to politicans and operatives all over South Texas. Yet, I am offended at the suggestion that  Judge Linda Yanez is somehow in cahoots with Mikal Watts. Judge Susan Criss is an excellent candidate. I can understand your tendency to want to link her opponent to a guy like Watts. However, Judge Linda Yanez is a woman of integrity and a source of pride in the Latino community, and yes, Latino voters are increasingly important in the Primary. She does not have to denounce anything. What should be denounced is the system of electing judges in Texas.

    By the way, Burka has a much better post on the matter. He's taking Watts to task and not Judge Criss' opponent. Go Burka.

  10. This attack on an elected Democrat is shameful and the attack on
    a Democratic candidate is disappointing.

    Anyone who follows Texas politics (and who isn't a paid political consultant) knows that the Republican assault on Texas consumers' rights has been an assault on the sanctity of the Texas citizens' service on juries.  Phil Hardberger, a good Democrat elected to mayor of San Antonio and Chief Justice of the San Antonio Court of Appeals, documented this problem in his award winning legal analysis “Juries under Siege.”  University of Texas law professor David Anderson also discussed this corruption of the judicial system in his recent article “Judicial Tort Reform in Texas”.  The Texas Observer also recently documented this problem in its report on “The Worst Judges in Texas”.

    Democrats who have been fighting against this attack on consumer rights have worked hard to elect Democratic judges who honor our constitutional citizen/juror-driven justice system.  Many people have fought this battle, and Mikal Watts is one of those who has fought hardest for this cause.  But in most courts around Texas, anti-consumer and anti-jury Republicans have replaced the Democratic judges who honor and respect our jury system. 

    If you read, Watts' letter (and not just the biased story in the Houston Chronicle or the partisan spin), you will see that Watts makes the point that he has worked to elect good Democrats who respect the “sanctity of the jury” verdict and who will not “overuse” the judicial authority to second guess the jurors who actually heard evidence and assessed the witnesses live at trial.  Watts did not say that the judges would give him any special deference; instead, Watts said the judges would show deference to the jury.  And even the most activist Texas Republican judges acknowledge that is what judges are supposed to do under Texas law.

    It is some indication of how far consumer rights and respect for jury verdicts has eroded under the Republican judicial attack that a lawyer representing a minister whose wife was negligently killed would have to inform the negligent company that the judges reviewing the claims are among those who still respect jury verdicts, but that's what Texas justice has come down to.  Watts has worked hard to support Democratic judges who respect jury verdicts and who have resisted the Republican assault on the judicial system, and that's what Watts' letter says. 

    The blatant attempt to smear Watts during the primary is what Texas Democratic primary politics has come down to.  It is no wonder that Democrats have suffered at the ballot box for more than a decade now.

    I am disappointed by such smears, but I am no longer surprised by them.

    The smear which truly shocks me, and which I believe a paid political operative ought not post no matter how it serves his business model, is the wholly fabricated attack on Justice Linda Yanez, a hero of the Democratic Party who has served honorably as an appellate judge for over a decade.  While I understand that a paid political consultant has to earn a living just like the rest of us, the attack on Justice Yanez goes beyond what ought to be tolerated.

    For those who aren't familiar with Justice Yanez, her career has included

    1. teaching from her beginnings as an elementary school teacher to rising to become an instructor at Harvard Law School, and the University of Valencia Law School in Spain, and serving on faculty of the National Judicial College,

    2. trailblazing from a child picking cotton in south Texas to becoming as the first Latina to serve as a judge on a Texas appellate court who has received the “Pioneer Award” for the State Bar of Texas, the “Outstanding Lawyer” and “Lawyer of the Year” awards from the Mexican American Bar Association of Texas, and a “Lifetime Achievement Award” from the Hispanic Bar Association,

    3. serving as an appellate judge for 14 years, as an official advisor on immigration matters to President Bill Clinton, as a Director for National Legal Aid, as an attorney with the Legal Assistance Foundation, as Regional Counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, and as 2002 Democratic nominee for Texas Supreme Court Place 8.

    Even the attack piece in the Houston Chronicle confirmed that Justice Yanez responded to the Chronicle's inquiry and assured the paper that Watts never received any preferential treatment from the appeals court.  In fact, even the biased attack piece in the Chronicle went so far as to report that Judge Yanez's court overturned a $122 million judgment Watts obtained

    That's 122 million reasons why no one should doubt whether Justice Yanez or the court where she sits as the senior judge is fair and unbiased.

  11. Front Page
    It is in the paper of one of the 5 largest cities in America and it is a candidate for one of the most vulnerable Republicans up in 2008.

    It is meant to spur discussion and debate.  If you would like to write a journal defending Watts or anyone else mentioned, I am happy to front page it too if it well sourced and well written.

  12. Then you need to be careful
    about how you phrase things, because your final paragraph clearly states that she can be bought, not that someone says she can.

  13. good point
    posted is corrected to reflect your excellent suggestion. I look forward to Judge Yanez' swift denunciation of Watts' outrageous claims that she is in his pocket.

  14. one is an opinion
    that she's a perennial candidate. She ran an unimpressive campaign in 2002 and  I see no reason to believe that will change in 2008.

    The second assertion was made by Mikal Watts in his letter.I've edited the post to reflect Judge Yanez' likely innocence of Watts' outrageous claims.

    I look forward to her speedy denial of his assertions.

  15. Have you read the letter
    If you had you'd stop making these outrageous claims.  Check out the comments on KOS by Stop Cornyn to get an objective take on all of this by someone who actually read the letter

  16. Please read the letter
    and then I challenge you to tell us all where Watts says that Yanez (or any other Democratic Justice on the 13th Court) can be bought.  He does mention that his firm has supported the judges in the past, but the thrust of his argument is that these justices believe in the “sanctity of jury verdicts”.  Ooooh, whores for civil justice. I can't believe it.

    But the comments regarding Justice Yanez are typical of this site and other blogs. You seem to think that Mexicans can all be bought, are all part of some evil machine politics that are manipulated by evil doers.

    Before you object and say that some of your best friends are mexican and you can't be a bigot because you support Noriega, that don't mean you can't still have those feelings.  Hell some of the worst racists and bigots I know are minorities themselves.  Hell look at one of the great gay bashers of our time, Larry Craig.

    If you ever stop to wonder why there aren't more minority bloggers (or if you even care) or wonder why events like Yearly Kos are so lily white….well just look in the mirror.

  17. Yeah, the narrative is getting old.
    Corrupt mexicanos en la frontera, easily bought off by the rich white guy. It sounds like a bad novela. The truth is whomever makes the money makes the rules, right? Well, sa grassroots, take this into consderation – Latinos may not be too prominent in the blogosphere, but we SHOW UP in the primary. Watts can pass out $100 bills to every Latino Democratic voter in Texas and he's still going to lose. On a statewide Primary ballot, Judge Criss probably won't win either. So how about a little respect for Justice Yanez and her South Texas colleagues? Respect us now or expect us later.

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