Dallas Morning News - "My Ballot"
DMN: Length of residency in Texas:
Phil Johnson: I first moved to Texas with my family in 1957. I lived in Texas until I entered active military service in 1965. I returned to Texas in 1969 while in the military and have resided in Texas since then.
DMN: Occupation/main source of income:
Phil Johnson: Justice, Texas Supreme Court.
DMN: Current civic involvement/accomplishment highlights:
Phil Johnson: Church, Law School and college alumni organizations.
DMN: Previous civic involvement/accomplishment highlights:
Phil Johnson: Trinity Christian Schools Supervising Committee (chair 2 terms); Southwest Lighthouse for the Blind, Board of Directors (chair 2 terms); Lubbock Area Foundation, Board of Directors; Lubbock Legal Aid Society, Board of Directors (chair 1 term); Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse, Region I Advisory Group; Carillon Foundation, Board of Directors; Downtown Kiwanis Club Board of Directors (President 1 term); Golden Spread Council of Boy Scouts, Board of Directors.
DMN: Previous public offices sought/held:
Phil Johnson: Justice, 7th Court of Appeals; Chief Justice, 7th Court of Appeals.
DMN: How much funding have you raised for your campaign?
Phil Johnson: The Texas Ethics Commission report for the period ending 12/31/07 shows approximately $472,000 funds on hand for my campaign.
DMN: Who are your top three contributors?
Phil Johnson: The Texas Ethics Report for the period ending 12/31/07 shows Q-PAC, USAA Group PAC and Jackson Walker, LLP PAC.
Have you ever been arrested? If so, explain:
Phil Johnson: No.
DMN: Why should voters choose you over your opponent(s)?
Phil Johnson: Because of my experience, qualifications and my commitment to judge based on legal principles and not my personal opinions or some personal agenda. After graduating from college I served honorably as a pilot and officer in the U.S. Air Force. When I was discharged from the service, I attended law school and graduated with honors. While in law school I served on the Law Review, which was an honorary organization whose members wrote, edited and published legal books and articles. After graduating from law school I practiced law for over twenty years doing mainly civil trial work, although I also practiced, at one time or another, in most areas of the law such as negotiating and drawing contracts, family law, real estate transactions, drawing wills and probating wills and elder law. I have been certified in Civil Trial and Personal Injury Trial law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization since 1984. While in private practice I handled and tried almost every type of lawsuit, including cases involving property disputes, family matters, personal injuries of all kinds, construction disutes, medical negligence, aviation accidents, insurance disputes, contract disputes, banking and lender liability, automobile and truck accidents, products liability, and employment disputes. I was elected and served as a Justice on the 7th Court of Appeals for four years. I was then elected Chief Justice and served as Chief Justice of the 7th Court of Appeals for over two years before beginning my service as a Justice on the Texas Supreme Court. I have served as a Justice on the Texas Supreme Court since April, 2005.
DMN: Would you agree to limit campaign contributions from lawyers to $5,000 per firm?
Phil Johnson: The legislature has set maximum campaign contribution limits for all persons, not just lawyers and law firms. I have confidence in the legislative process to represent and balance the interests of Texas citizens and candidates. If the legislature changes the limits to $5,000 per lawfirm, I will abide by those limits. Until the legislature changes the law, I will abide by the current limits.
DMN: What value do you place on precedents? What would motivate you to deviate from a precedent?
Phil Johnson: I value legal precedents highly. My experience in representing clients for over 20 years in private practice before becoming a judge convinced me that stability and predictability in the law is one of its most important characteristics to society, even though the precedents might not be exactly right. Stability in the law allows citizens and businesses to plan ahead and not to have to constantly change plans because the courts change precedents. I would deviate from precedent only if the precedent was clearly in error.
DMN: How important are unanimous Supreme Court opinions? What would prompt you to write a separate opinion?
Phil Johnson: It was not of great significance to me as either a practitioner or as a court of appeals justice whether the relevant Supreme Court opinion was unanimous. Now that I am on the Supreme Court I am not as concerned about whether the Court's opinions are unanimous as I am about whether the opinions are correct, although the members of the Court recognize that being flexible enough to change the wording of an opinion a small amount to have more Justices join the opinion can be good. I would write a separate opinion to explain my reasoning for a significant disagreement with the result reached by the majority, or with some aspect of the reasoning expressed by the majority.
DMN: What's the most important quality a voter should consider in a jurist? For example, is it a sense of fairness? Is it an ability to reason dispassionately? Is it decisiveness?
Phil Johnson: It is hard for most voters to know if an appellate jurist has qualities such as fairness, an ability to reason dispassionately or being decisive. Many times voters do not have access to or the time to read opinions written by an appellate judge to be able to evaluate the judge's qualifications. So, I would think that very important considerations to most voters would be the candidate's (1) experiences on and off the bench, (2) legal education, training and practice experience, (3) prior judicial experience, and (4) recommendations from groups that regularly evaluate judicial candidates.
DMN: Writing is an important part of this job. If opinions aren't clear, the public, including lawyers and lower courts, are left confused. What experiences have you had in writing briefs or opinions? Please describe that work.
Phil Johnson: While I was in law school I was on the Law Review, which is a selective organization that writes, edits and publishes articles and books on the law. While in private practice I wrote trial briefs and occasional appellate briefs. My law practice was mainly a trial practice; I fully understand the need for opinions to be clear so lawyers and judges are not confused by the opinions. After I became a Justice on the Court of Appeals in 1999, my full time job was to review trial records and appellate briefs, evaluate the appeal and write opinions deciding the appeals. While on the Court of Appeals, I authored several hundred opinions. While I have been on the Supreme Court, a major part of my job has been to review briefs and records and write opinions.
DMN: Does the court have the right to intervene if the Texas Legislature fails to fund key constitutional responsibilities such as schools, jails and highways? If so, how does the court enforce that obligation?
Phil Johnson: Courts are limited to deciding cases and controversies brought by parties. Courts cannot seek out cases or controversies to decide. If a controversy involving funding is brought to and is within the Court's jurisdiction, the Court has a Constitutional obligation to consider the case. Courts 'enforce' their decisions by issuing orders and judgments. Court orders and judgments, in the end, must be enforced by officers of the executive branch of government.
DMN: The perception is this court is tilted toward business. Why is that?
Phil Johnson: Persons have applied that label and it has been picked up and repeated by the media. Manifestly, the media affects perceptions of our society.
DMN: Does this court have a significant backlog? If so, what would you do to reduce it?
Phil Johnson: The court always has cases pending, waiting for a decision after the cases have been heard. Last year (fiscal year 2007) the court disposed of more regular causes and issued more opinions than it had in any of the previous 5 years. Despite the increase in dispositions and opinions, the number of causes pending at the end of the last fiscal year increased over the number pending at the end of the prior fiscal year (2006). Ways to reduce the number of pending causes include maintaining low turnover in court personnel and accepting fewer cases for hearing until the number of causes pending is reduced.
DMN: What is a reasonable length of time for the court to dispose of a plaintiff's case?
Phil Johnson: The amount of time to dispose of a case, regardless of whether it is a plaintiff's case or a defendant's case, depends on many individualized factors such as the procedural posture of the case, whether the case is being held because a similar case is being decided by the court and the similar case may determine the outcome of the case being held, and the complexity of the case. There is no set amount of time for disposing of a case, but given the current docket status, a reasonable goal is to dispose of cases, on average, within a year after they are heard. Some cases will be disposed of in less time, and that is always the Court's goal, but some may take longer because of individual factors. When the number of causes pending is reduced, the amount of time to dispose of a case should also be reduced.
DMN: Name one state judge and one federal judge, living or deceased, whose opinions and work you admire. Why do you admire them?
Phil Johnson: Federal: Justice Antonin Scalia. Justice Scalia's opinions are consistent on legal principle and respectful of the rights of all litigants and the Constitutional rights of our citizens.
State: Former Justice James Baker. Justice Baker's opinions reflected a commitment to legal principles and were clear and easy for practitioners to read and understand.
DMN: As a judge (if applicable), have any complaints been filed against you to the Judicial Conduct Committee. If so, please explain the disposition of those complaints.
Phil Johnson: No.
DMN: As a lawyer, have you had any proceedings (complaints) filed against you wit the Grievance Committee. If so, what was the disposition (unfounded, private reprimand, public reprimand, suspension, disbarment)?
Phil Johnson: No.
DMN: Do you support our system of electing judges in partisan contests? Or do you support moving to a new system, such as one where judges are appointed and then run later in non-partisan retention elections?
Phil Johnson: The Texas Constitution provides for electing judges. I have taken an oath to support the Constitution and laws, so I support the system of electing judges as it is now in our Constitution. Change of the system is more of a political matter than a judicial matter. I have determined to be a resource and relate my experiences with the current system to anyone who asks, but to refrain from advocating change to the current system because of my position as a Supreme Court Justice. From the studies I have read, there are both positive and negative aspects to any system of judicial selection that has been proposed.