Texas Plaintiffs Benefit from Democratic Judicial Sweep, New Study Shows
By Angela Morris
Many Texas judges say the “R” or “D” after their names do not impact their rulings on the bench.
But a new study shows that when Democrats swept appellate benches in the Lone Star State’s major metro areas, there was a huge impact on civil rulings—which helped plaintiffs.
The study comes just as the state is launching a new commission to study nonpartisan methods of judicial selection in Texas. However, similar pushes in the past to put partisanship aside in judicial elections have failed.
“We were surprised by how dramatic the difference was in consumer cases after the new Democratic judges took the bench,” said Haynes and Boone partner Kent Rutter, who conducted the study with Haynes and Boone associate Natasha Breaux. “The 2018 elections brought the Houston, Dallas and Austin courts in line with the trend we are seeing statewide: The courts of appeal are showing much greater deference to jury verdicts, and plaintiffs naturally benefit from that trend.”
Many appeals come up from trial court cases in which plaintiffs won a judgment, he explained, which means that appellate rulings that uphold jury verdicts often benefit those plaintiffs.
Rutter and Breaux, both from Houston, studied civil rulings by the state’s 14 intermediate appellate courts between September 2018 and August 2019, and released findings Monday in a presentation, “Reasons for Reversal in the Texas Courts of Appeals.”
“I think the study does show that political affiliation does make a difference,” Rutter said.
Consider rulings in tort and consumer protection cases: From September to December 2018, when the Houston, Dallas and Austin appellate courts were still all-Republican, appellate rulings reversed plaintiffs’ trial court wins 39% of the time, while the courts only reversed defendants’ victories 5% of the time.
When Republicans were swept out of those courts in the November 2018 election, and Democrats replaced them in January 2019, reversal rates in tort and consumer protection cases changed drastically. From January to August, the appellate courts reversed plaintiffs’ victories 17% of the time and reversed defendants’ wins 18% of the time.
Rutter noted the numbers are unable to reveal to what extent partisanship affected decisions, and there are other factors that could have impacted outcomes.
“One explanation for the shift could be that the departing judges were clearing the most difficult cases from their dockets in the final months of 2018,” Rutter noted. “It may be premature to draw long term conclusions from the new justices’ first eight months on the bench.”
Breaux added that partisanship aside, some of the statistical change may be attributed to the fact that these justices were brand new.
“In general, new judges are more likely to be deferential to trial court rulings. No new judge, however experienced, can have experience with all the different types of cases that the courts of appeal see,” Breaux said.
Another finding from the study may surprise trial lawyers, she said, noting that she’s heard litigators complain about how juries are selected, what evidence was allowed or barred, or how juries resolved conflicting testimony.
“The courts of appeal don’t reverse jury verdicts for the reasons that they expect, Breaux explained. “When the courts of appeal do reverse after a jury trial, about two-thirds of the time, it’s because the case never should have gone to the jury in the first place.”