Judicial Arts Endowment

Devine converts plaintiffs' lawyers' cash into a courtroom gallery

Civil Judge John Devine is a self-proclaimed religious conservative, and he's gone to great lengths to decorate his courtroom to showcase his views. Since Devine's election in 1994, he's used cash from his campaign account to purchase all manner of patriotic and religious paraphernalia for both the public and private areas of his chambers. In an ironic twist, the contributors who are helping fund Devine's latest artistic spending spree are a group of big-name Democratic plaintiffs' lawyers.

In his final contribution and expenditure filing before the November 3 election, the state judge for the 190th district reports spending more than $17,000 on art for his sixth-floor court in the county civil courts building downtown, but that's apparently only a portion of his outlay for collector-quality pieces. How much more he's spent is hard to tell; the report also shows he's used the campaign account to reimburse himself nearly $14,000 in cash for computer equipment, continuing legal education, staff gifts and additional courtroom art, but those amounts are not itemized.

Compared with his artistic spending campaign, Devine's re-election effort against Democrat Jane Fraser seems almost an afterthought. Since Devine lost to Fraser in the recent Houston Bar Association preference poll (1,019 to 923), and the Houston Chronicle endorsed Fraser as well, the incumbent might eventually regret devoting so much of his treasury to non-campaign expenditures.

Devine's taste in art tends toward Christian and hyper-patriotic themes, with the only mildly titillating piece being a $1,235 bronze of a sultry blind justice, which sits on a pedestal at the front of his court. For his courtroom walls, the good judge favors portraits of the Founding Fathers in prayer poses, Revolutionary War battle flags, paintings of stone tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments, and mounted pages from old Bibles. Portraits of Honest Abe Lincoln and George Washington hang directly behind the judge's perch, overseeing his gallery of the Republic.

According to his latest campaign report, Devine dished out nearly $2,000 for the flags; $1,700 to West Side of the Moon, an art dealer based in Whitefish, Montana; $2,656 to Foliophiles Collection in Santa Fe, $2,200 to Santa Fe Indian Plaza Gallery, and nearly $5,000 to Frame by Frame, presumably to mount the load for display. Then there's $2,489 to Montana Furniture, earmarked for art.

Devine has also tricked up his courtroom with some nonartistic wrinkles, including a closed-circuit video- and audio-recording system that can pick up conversations. A notice on the door warns all that Judge John might be listening to their courtroom chatter. Perhaps he just wants to monitor the reactions of visitors to the art display.

Devine has also shown a predilection for using his court quarters for political as well as artistic staging areas. He was publicly reprimanded by the Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct two years ago for conducting a political meeting in his chambers when he launched a congressional bid. A court source says the commission recently slapped Devine on the wrists with a private reprimand for using his judicial e-mail to invite other judges to a campaign fundraiser.

There's nothing illegal about spending campaign money to decorate a courtroom as a religious and patriotic shrine. Several judges display their art and historical artifacts in their courtrooms -- but no one else does it on Devine's scale. One lawyer, Daniel Shea, filed a federal lawsuit against Devine to protest the courtroom's Ten Commandments painting and other art loaded with religious symbolism. Shea represented a family seeking multimillion-dollar damages in a wrongful death suit pending in Devine's court. Shea argued that displays of commandments such as "Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbor's Goods" might bias a jury against big payouts to his client. Federal Judge Melinda Harmon dismissed Shea's suit against Devine on technical grounds, a decision that is currently under appeal.

An expert witness called by Shea, attorney Derek Davis, opined that Devine's use of his courtroom as a showcase for political and religious beliefs violates separation of church and state and discriminates against non-Christians and atheists serving on juries in the 190th. "Judge Devine's artwork should be removed or at least supplemented by law codes and sacred texts from other traditions that have made contributions to our public philosophy," argued Davis.

Judge Devine traded calls with The Insider but was ultimately unavailable for comment.

A former 190th district court employee claims Devine's campaign spending on artwork has exceeded $40,000 since he took office. According to this source, the judge's motivation for his purchases is more secular than spiritual. "It's self-enrichment," says this source. "For example, when he started buying those [historical flags], they cost about $600 apiece. Now they're worth $900 apiece, and he supposedly has one of the largest private collections in the country. And they are going up in value. Everything he's bought is a collector's item."

The judge is entitled to take the art with him if and when he leaves the bench and to eventually repurchase the pieces from his campaign. But by that time, who's really going to be keeping track of how the collection is liquidated?

Almost as striking as his outlay for art is the list of contributors who ponied up the money Devine used to buy it. The largest givers are well-known Democratic plaintiffs' attorneys who, as a class, rank somewhere between the Whore of Babylon and Mary Magdalene in the conservative Republican pantheon.

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