How 3 Texas Lawyers Climbed to the Peak of Their Profession
By Angela Morris
Top law schools, prestigious judicial clerkships and Big-Law pedigree are commonalities among three Texas Supreme Court justices that Gov. Greg Abbott has appointed to fill vacancies in recent years.
Other similarities emerge in Justices Jimmy Blacklock, Brett Busby and Jane Bland’s conservative judicial philosophies and Republican political leanings, based on a review of the applications they submitted to the governor’s office to be considered for judicial appointments.
Texas Lawyer obtained the judicial applications from Abbott’s office through a Texas Public Information Act request.
“If I think about unifying themes about these three appointments, in general, you could say they are proven, hardworking, respected, conservative jurists or lawyers in the state of Texas,” said appellate litigator Lisa Hobbs, founding member in Kuhn Hobbs in Austin.
“He’s looking for people he trusts,” Hobbs added about Abbott. “He doesn’t want any surprises.”
Climbing the ladder
Lawyers looking for a coveted appointment to the high court might need to think about it very early, arranging their career trajectory just right.
For example, these three appointees all graduated from top law schools and scored competitive, prestigious judicial clerkships on federal appellate courts. Next, big law awaited them.
The next rung on the ladder for both Busby and Bland took them to state benches. Yet both lost reelection as appellate justices in Houston during the November 2018 election, when a Democratic sweep unseated Republican jurists across Texas’ major metro areas.
Hobbs, who closely observes the Supreme Court and practices there, said that these credentials give objective factors for the governor to measure.
“These are qualified individuals,” she said. “They have backgrounds that lend themselves to how to write opinions, how to cite cases, how to analyze the law.”
Blacklock differs from the others: He gravitated toward lawyering in the state’s executive branch. While he had no judicial experience before his appointment, he had a connection to Abbott in the attorney general’s office, when Abbott served there, and in the governor’s office.
Hobbs said she isn’t surprised that Abbott picked someone he knows well, whom he can trust. Hobbs added that she values diversity in judges among traditional demographic lines but also in work experience.
“Diversity in public service—in other branches of government—is just as important,” Hobbs explained.
Being a Republican is key to winning an appointment to the Texas Supreme Court. Hobbs noted that all Republican governors pick Republican judges, so it’s no surprise that Blacklock, Busby and Bland all have histories in the party.
Blacklock has been active in past years in Republican Party politics in Travis County, which includes Austin. In the attorney general’s office, he handled cases over abortion regulations, and same-sex divorce. He drafted amicus briefs for Abbott’s office about gun rights, immigration and medicare expansion.
Prior to taking the bench, Busby was active in Republican Party politics at the county, state and national levels. Back then, he gave pro bono representation to the conservative nonprofits First Liberty Institute and Texas Eagle Forum. He ran for election to the 14th Court of Appeals as a Republican.
As an elected judge since 1997, Bland has less of a track record as a Republican politico, although she always ran for election as a Republican.
Bland’s answers to the judicial questionnaire in her application did indicate a conservative judicial approach.
“The role of a judge is to interpret the law as written. Respecting settled interpretations of the law when the facts of two cases are materially the same brings equality and certainty to citizens’ rights and obligations under the law,” she wrote.
More conservative views came out in the judicial questionnaires for Blacklock and Busby.
Busby wrote that the judge he most admires is former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia because of his “disciplined development of the interpretive methods of textualism and original public meaning.”
Blacklock, when asked which case he thought the U.S. Supreme Court decided wrongly, said Roe v. Wade.
“It is not based on the application of neutral legal principles external to the judges,” he wrote.
Blacklock declined to comment for this article, and Busby and Bland didn’t return multiple messages seeking comment.
Winning the appointment
Only three of the high court’s nine justices first won their seat by election: Chief Justice Nathan Hecht and Justices Paul Green and John Devine. Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry appointed Justices Eva Guzman, Debra Lehrmann, Jeff Boyd and Jeff Brown, who is now leaving for the federal bench. Bland is Abbott’s third appointment to the high court.
In a press release announcing Blacklock’s appointment, Abbott highlighted his membership in the Federalist Society and Yale Law Republicans, and his past work on Obamacare litigation, religious liberty and right to life issues.
“We need justices with a conservative judicial philosophy who will apply the Constitution as it was intended,” said Abbott.
For both Busby and Bland, Abbott recounted their judicial experience, and leadership roles on judicial branch commissions.
“Brett’s respect for the Constitution and his understanding that judges say what the law is, not what they would like it to be, will serve the people of Texas,” Abbott said.
He said about Bland, “Jane Bland is an experienced and proven legal expert whose respect for the Constitution is unmatched.”