ETHICS QUESTION OF THE MONTH
This content is generated by the Texas Center for Legal Ethics and is for informational purposes only. Look for the reasoning behind the answers at legalethicstexas.com.
You’ve Got a Friend in Me
Lawyer Eric has a general practice in a small Texas town, mostly
handling small matters that generate a modest income. He is approached
one day by a potential client with a serious personal injury claim, and
he agrees to take the case on a contingency fee basis because of the
potential for a large verdict. For two years, Eric devotes substantial
time and resources to getting the case ready for trial, to the detriment
of the rest of his practice. His efforts pay off when he secures a
favorable jury verdict and a judgment well into the eight-figure
The solvent and well-insured defendant appeals the judgment to a large metropolitan court of appeals with multiple justices who sit in three-justice panels. Eric is not familiar with the court of appeals because few of his cases are appealed and many of the justices joined the court after his last appeal more than a decade ago.
After the briefing is completed, the court grants oral argument. The notice of oral argument reveals, for the first time, the names of the three justices on the panel that will decide the case. Eric reviews the justices’ online bios and realizes that one of the justices was a law school classmate of his with whom he has not had contact in over 30 years. He did not recognize her previously because she got married and changed her name sometime after law school. She also started using her full first name of “Elizabeth” instead of “Betsy,” as she was known in law school. It was only when he saw her picture and read her bio that he made the connection. He recalls that she was near the top of their class and that she let him copy her outlines on a couple of occasions when he had missed a few classes they had together.
Because Eric fondly remembers how kind she was to him in law school, and he is confident that she is probably an excellent jurist, he decides to make a $4,000 contribution to her reelection campaign before the primary election, which is about a month away.
Which is most accurate?
A. The contribution is unethical because Eric has a case currently
pending before Justice Elizabeth
B. The contribution is unethical because of the timing on the donation, just days before oral argument
C. The contribution is unethical because $4,000 exceeds the amount that individuals are permitted to make to judicial campaigns
D. The contribution is permissible under the ethical rules in Texas
Attorneys are not prohibited from making campaign
contributions to judicial candidates, even if they have cases pending
before a judge seeking reelection. However, where the facts suggest that
such a contribution could “reasonably be construed as being intended to
corrupt or to unfairly influence the decision-maker,” it could violate
Rule 3.05. No such evidence exists here as Eric’s contribution was
motivated by a prior personal relationship.
The Texas Ethics Commission limits individual contributions to court of appeals candidates to $5,000 in judicial districts with populations of more than one million. Therefore, Eric’s contribution of $4,000 is permitted. The correct answer is D.
For a more detailed analysis, go to the center’s website at legalethicstexas.com.TBJ
ABOUT THE CENTER
The Texas Center for Legal Ethics was created by three former chief justices of the Supreme Court of Texas to educate lawyers about ethics and professionalism. Lawyers can access the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct, the Texas Lawyer’s Creed, and a variety of other online ethics resources by computer or smart device at legalethicstexas.com.
The information contained in Ethics Question of the Month is intended to illustrate an ethics issue of general interest in the Texas legal community; it is not intended to provide ethics advice that applies regardless of particular facts. For specific legal ethics advice, readers are urged to consult the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct (including the official comments) and other authorities and/or a qualified legal ethics adviser.