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

Question

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 range.

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

 

Answer

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.


DISCLAIMER

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.

 

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