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On The Merits

​Lawyers Face Dangers, Too

Every day, police officers, prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges who work in our criminal justice system face significant dangers that most of us in the legal profession never have to worry about. That’s because they regularly work with defendants who are sometimes capable of horrific crimes. 

When the courts decide to levy punishment, some of these defendants violently lash out at those who prosecuted them, or even those who have done their best to defend them. (Family lawyers face similar dangers since the cases they handle often involve emotionally charged issues such as child custody and visitation, which can cause those involved to take extreme measures.)

Yesterday, the trial court denied a motion for new trial in the convictions of Eric and Kim Williams for the murders of former Kaufman County DA Mike McLelland, his wife Cynthia, and his former First Assistant DA Mark Hasse.   Mr. Williams was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death in late December for his role in the brutal, execution-style slayings, which were based on his earlier prosecution by McLelland and Hasse for stealing county computer equipment. 

Shortly after Mr. Williams’ conviction, his wife reached a guilty plea on murder charges, earning a 40-year sentence. Now, Mr. Williams, the triggerman, is on death row, and his wife, the getaway driver, will serve 20 years before being eligible for parole.

The case against Mr. Williams was prosecuted by private criminal defense attorneys who were brought in to avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest. They willingly stepped outside their normal roles to present a compelling case for why this defendant deserved the death penalty, and the unanimous jury agreed. On the other side of the case, Mr. Williams’ public defenders handled their roles with competence and professionalism in the face of extensive evidence confirming their client’s heinous crimes.

This is the way that the justice system is supposed to work, where the rule of law wins out over vendettas and violence.  Kudos to the judges and lawyers involved who upheld the rule of law in what was no doubt very personal and very trying circumstances.  

Posted: 3/4/2015 8:11:54 AM by On the Merits Editor | with 0 comments

​The Law of Weed

Marijuana currently is legalized for recreational use in two U.S. states – Colorado and Washington – and Oregon and Alaska are set to allow recreational pot in 2016. Overall, 37 states permit legalized medical marijuana or have decriminalized weed possession. Texas is one of 23 states that continue to ban marijuana for all purposes.

The growth of the marijuana industry is rising rapidly, and some experts are predicting U.S. sales to top $8 billion by 2018. As a result, more and more growers, salespeople and others (even lawyers) are finding work in the burgeoning field. Now, an increasing number of law schools are getting involved in legal marijuana by offering specialized courses designed to give prospective attorneys a leg up as they enter the legal marketplace.

The cannabis courses will cover such topics as potential restrictions on marijuana advertising, potential tax issues, driving while high, employee testing and other areas where pot and the law are already intersecting or are expected to do so. On the ethics front, some classes also will deal with the sticky wicket of how and whether attorneys should represent marijuana clients.

With the proliferation of marijuana-friendly laws and the prospects of a multibillion-dollar industry, expect even more law schools to begin educating students on the ins and outs of legal pot. Jeff Spicoli could not be happier.  

Posted: 2/23/2015 4:30:35 PM by On the Merits Editor | with 0 comments

Re-elect John Roberts!

A recent Harris Interactive poll indicates that nearly half (48%) of the 2,500 Americans who were polled said they believe that voters should elect justices to the nation’s highest court.  Bad idea?  Well, proponents could point out that the judges of many states, including Texas, are elected.  What could go wrong?  

We’ve written here before about the unfortunate consequences that accompanies partisan judicial elections and how that process often leads to public distrust of our judiciary system. With the current federal laws governing political fundraising and the level of corporate money being thrown around on federal elections, can anyone even imagine how much would be spent in order to advance the U.S. Supreme Court aspirations of a particular candidate? And does anyone truly believe that corporations would back the most qualified and capable high court candidates over those who might be inclined to do their bidding? 

If anything, we should be trying to limit the politics of judicial selection.  Much of what judges do is not expressly political, and instead involves making an impartial interpretation of the law or the application of that law to a specific set of facts.  When they do decide ostensibly political issues, the best judgments are often rendered by those who are somewhat removed from the emotion of political passions and can be a truly neutral decision maker.     

For that reason, judges should be selected on merit, pure and simple. The public deserves the best, smartest and least-biased judges at the helm of our criminal and civil justice systems. If we aren’t getting the best Supreme Court Justices with the current system, perhaps it needs to be reformed.  But turning them to politicians and putting them on the hustings would be a step backward.  

Posted: 1/5/2015 3:19:06 PM by On the Merits Editor | with 0 comments

You Don’t (Pro) Se

The people who complain about frivolous lawsuits often don’t realize that a legislative closing of the courthouse doors is not the only solution.  The courts themselves have great power to regulate and evaluate the cases that citizens have a right to bring.  

Case in point:  dealing with the so-called “serial filers,” which are present in virtually every jurisdiction in the country.  Serial filers are those who constantly file lawsuits, on a pro se basis, seemingly against everyone and everything.  Their legal claims are rarely successful, often being dismissed early in the process, but they consume valuable time that our courts could be spending on legitimate legal controversies.  

Many lawyers are applauding a recent order of the Indiana Supreme Court setting limits on pro se filers.  Inspired by one plaintiff with more than 120 pro se filings to his credit during the past six years alone, the Indiana high court has instituted new rules in a published opinion governing such filings.

In addition to requiring pro se plaintiffs to clearly state their requested relief at the beginning of their filings, the opinion permits courts to limit the number of words or pages in a filing and allows for civil or criminal penalties for those who fail to abide by the new guidelines.

Some critics of the justice system don’t really know much about the courtroom other than what they read in some of the more sensational accounts of trials.  But judges and other leaders of the bar work every day to improve the judicial branch for everyone.  And that’s exactly what the Indiana Supreme Court has done here.  


Posted: 12/5/2014 12:00:00 AM by On the Merits Editor | with 0 comments

Farewell to the AJS

You might have missed one of the very few stories about the recent dissolution of The American Judicature Society (AJS), the 101-year-old nonprofit organization dedicated to a fair and impartial judicial system. The group’s president blamed the closure on current financial challenges facing AJS and many other nonprofit groups.

Now, AJS’ center for judicial ethics will be located at the National Center for State Courts, and its additional functions will be moved to other groups with similar goals. One AJS hallmark is its strong support for all states to adopt the “Missouri Plan,” a merit-based process for selecting judges rather than popular vote. Even though many states, including Texas, still select judges in partisan elections, others have adopted the Missouri model and now select their judges through nonpartisan judicial commissions.

The idea of selecting judges based on merit has strong support.  Former Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson frequently requested that the state legislature reform Texas’ system of selecting judges, calling the current system “broken.”  Yet improving the impartiality of the judiciary is often lost among today’s political rancor.  At least one law school professor who was quoted about AJS’ demise labeled the group a “dinosaur,” saying merit-based judicial selection “had run its course . . .”

Fortunately, there are several other organizations and nonprofit groups that are poised to pick up where AJS left off, including the previously mentioned National Center for State Courts. Here’s hoping the AJS goal of merit selection for all the nation’s judges continues, and proves that this is not an idea that has run its course.


Posted: 12/3/2014 1:23:14 PM by On the Merits Editor | with 0 comments

About This Blog

Thanks for stopping by On the Merits, the first blog from the Texas Center for Legal Ethics. On the Merits will take a close look at significant legal stories with an eye toward addressing the legal myths and misconceptions that turn up in news stories, movies, TV programs, websites, anonymous emails and other forms of mass communications. Our goal at On the Merits is to provide readers with a thoughtful examination of what the media and others are saying about the legal profession and to apply the frequently-absent context of how the legal system actually works.

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