AUSTIN (CN) - Texas Supreme Court Justice Nathan Hecht sued the Texas Ethics Commission over its ruling that reduced legal fees constitute a political donation. Hecht says the Jackson Walker law firm represented him in a 2006 proceeding "that affected the free speech rights of all Texas judges" - Hecht's public endorsement of Harriet Miers' nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. He says Jackson Walker charged reduced fees because of its dedication to public interest work, which is ethical and permissible.
Judge Hecht, the longest-serving justice on the Texas Supreme Court, says the Preamble to the Texas Rules of Professional Conduct states that lawyers should do public interest work. Rule 1.04 spells out appropriate procedures on which to base legal fees.
Hecht says Jackson Walker charged him "a reasonable fee" that was less than it could have billed for its hourly rate, but that the reduced rate is ethical under the Rules.
A complaint was filed against Hecht in July 2007, claiming that the reduced rate was a de facto political contribution. The Commission ruled on Dec. 11, 2008 that that was the case. Hecht claims that the Commission's ruling actually would require attorneys "to ignore their Rules of Professional Conduct and charge judges differently than any other client."
The Texas Ethics Commission fined Hecht $29,000 in the case, the Dallas Morning News reported. "The commission ruled that it was a contribution to his campaign, that it exceeded legal limits on what judges can accept and that he failed to disclose the donation on his state reports," the Morning News reported on Dec. 5, 2008.
(The Morning News quoted Hecht after he emerged from what it called a 4-hour hearing. The discrepancy between the date of the Morning News report and the Commission's "final ruling" on Dec. 11 apparently results from the time needed to prepare the ruling for publication.)
The original case stemmed from Hecht's public endorsement of Harriet Miers' nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court, the Morning News reported.
The newspaper reported that the Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct admonished Hecht for endorsing Miers in May 2006, and that Hecht's "one-year legal fight resulted in a $476,000 legal fee, of which he paid $308,000. Justice Hecht said that he negotiated a lower price, a common practice with lawyer fees, and paid the discounted amount with campaign contributions."
Texas Watch filed the complaint against Hecht, saying he failed to disclose the discount. Texas law limits judicial campaign contributions to $5,000 for individuals and $30,000 for a law firm.
Hecht is represented in Travis County Court by Steve McConnico with Scott, Douglas & McConnico.
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