The Trials of Felipe Reyna

Two former Texas Supreme Court justices and a Goliath of state judicial politics are trying to oust the 10th Court of Appeals judge from the courthouse that he once cleaned as a janitor.

Two former Texas Supreme Court justices and a Goliath of the state judicial lobby have lined up to drive Felipe Reyna from the Waco courthouse where he once worked as a janitor. The 10th Court of Appeals judge is undeterred.

The scuffle bears the markings of an age-old clash between tort reformers and trial lawyers for the jugular of the Texas judiciary — a still-brewing antagonism that surfaced in the “Justice for Sale” scandal of the late 1980s and once again came to a head during the 1995 legislative session, after Gov. George W. Bush was elected on an anti-frivolous-lawsuit platform.

Reyna’s critics — chief among them the powerful lobbying branch of the Texas Medical Association, a champion of tort reform — say the Republican is a pawn of the plaintiff bar and that the GOP challenger he faces in the March 2 primary, Ellis County district court judge Al Scoggins, is a better choice. (No Democrat has filed for the race.)

Reyna, appointed by Gov. Rick Perry in 2003 and elected to a full term in 2004, says he hasn’t been a “rubber stamp” for either side. “Hell, I’ve got the Texas trial lawyers mad at me, too,” says Reyna, who was the first person in his family to graduate from high school and worked cleaning the courthouse to pay for law school.

Scoggins, who identifies himself as “a conservative and a strict constructionist” who doesn’t “believe in legislating from the bench,” declined to speculate about why his backers like his judicial philosophy better than Reyna’s. But he’s got a strong lineup of support: He carries the endorsements of Scott Brister, who served on the Texas Supreme Court from 2003 to 2009; Tom Phillips, who served as chief justice of the court from 1988 until 2004; and TexPAC, the Texas Medical Association’s political action committee, which in 2004 supported Reyna’s re-election bid.

Darren Whitehurst, the medical association’s chief lobbyist, explains his organization’s about-face: “The difference between now and 2004 is, what [Reyna] told us back then and what's he's done have been different things." Whitehurst acknowledges the association tends to follow the “friendly incumbent rule” when endorsing candidates but says, “You look at the candidates and you see that Judge Reyna is not a friendly incumbent.”

Reyna characterizes Brister, Phillips and the medical association as “special interest groups" — citing the former justices’ reputation as tort reform boosters — and said it was “common knowledge” that they want “judges to rule their way irrespective of the law or the facts.”

The medical association isn’t the only Reyna defector. State Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, which is in the 10th Court’s district, endorsed Reyna in 2004 but is going with Scoggins this time around. Cook did not return calls for comment, but his biography on the Texas House of Representatives site might offer a clue as to his allegiances: It lists him as a recipient of the “coveted ‘Friends of Medicine Award’ from the Texas Medical Association.”

Fellow state Reps. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, and Sid Miller, R-Stephenville, whose constituents also live in part of the court’s district, have endorsed Scoggins, too. "I have a problem with Judge Reyna's stance with the trial lawyers,” Miller says. “He's just sided with them more often than I think he should.”

And then there’s the number of times the Supreme Court has overturned the Waco bench. Brister wrote in an e-mail to the Tribune that while he served as a justice, the high court reversed the 10th Court’s decisions more frequently on a per justice, per curiam basis than any other court of appeals, and that’s why he is endorsing Scoggins. "I don't know either of the candidates personally," he wrote, "But my individual opinion is that the 10th Court needs someone who might be a little bit better at following well-established law.”

Reyna dismisses claims that his court’s high reversal rates indicate he isn't right for the job. "When you start talking about reversal rates and all that stuff, that's hard to separate," he says. "Because when you say Justice Reyna wrote an opinion and he got reversed, well that's true, but so did another member of court, or maybe all three of us."

Despite the prominent names stacked against him, Reyna significantly leads his opponent in fundraising. Since June 2009, he's collected at least $31,000 from donors. Scoggins has raised $5,190, according to the most recent campaign finance reports. Notably, Scoggins’ campaign cash includes $500 from Jill and Wade Durbin. Jill Durbin works on the 10th Court for Chief Justice Tom Gray as a staff attorney.*

Reyna said he will post his own tally on the endorsements section of his campaign site soon, which as recently as last week included as supporters Cook and Attorney General Greg Abbott. Both have since been removed from the site. (View a cached version of the site here). A spokesman for the attorney general said Abbott had not made an endorsement in that primary and “as a policy matter does not get involved in contested primaries involving incumbents.”

The judge says there will be doctors on that list — for one, oral surgeon and former state Sen. David Sibley, R-Waco. Sibley, who supported tort reform legislation as a senator and is “sure not a trial lawyer,” says he is “disappointed” that Scoggins’ endorsers have made “an incorrect judgment” about Reyna. “I look for an honest judge and one that’s not beholden to anybody, and that’s what I see in Judge Reyna,” he says.

* [Correction: An earlier version of this story said Wade Durbin worked on the 10th Court as a staff attorney for Justice Reyna.]

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