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When Harris County Republican Party Chairman Gary Polland got back from the Republican National Convention late last week, he found himself included on an unexpected invitation list for a distinctly uninviting event.
In action that escaped media attention, the Texas House Committee on Judicial Affairs voted the week before in Dallas to subpoena Polland and three other party officials. It wants to question them about an aborted plan to pressure one of two GOP jurists who issued a 14th Court of Appeals opinion in June overturning the state's homosexual conduct law.
Judicial Affairs Chair Senfronia Thompson confirms the committee voted 6-1 to subpoena Polland, Harris County party treasurer Paul Simpson and the GOP chairs of two counties in the region, Janet Brannen of Trinity County and Richard Stadelmann of Washington County. They will be questioned about a draft letter sent by Polland to party chairmen in the 14th Court's district, calling on Justice John Anderson to reverse his opinion or else withdraw his re-election bid. Although the letter had been sent to the party chairs for their signature, the plan was later scuttled and no letter was mailed to Anderson. A copy was faxed anonymously to tip him off about the scheme.
The motion to subpoena was initiated by Democratic state Representative Jaime Capelo of Corpus Christi, apparently in response to a letter from 94th District Judge Jack Hunter calling for an investigation of the court of appeals matter.
The Committee on Judicial Affairs plans to hold a hearing later this month or in early September in Houston. The panel will gather facts and "if there's anything criminal, we'll stop our hearing and refer it to the district attorney's office," Thompson says. "If there's anything we need to do from a legislative point, then we would include that in our report."
According to Thompson, there was no attempt to serve Polland's subpoena in Philadelphia, where he was a delegate at the GOP National Convention. "Oh, no, that would be inappropriate," exclaims the representative. "I wouldn't do anything like that." An aide to Thompson says the subpoenas will likely be issued sometime this week.
Polland was unavailable for comment, but treasurer Simpson says he has been told a subpoena is on its way. "I don't know the details of what they did or what motivated them," comments the Houston lawyer, "but it seems like a politically inspired attack on free speech."
Will Hartnett, a Dallas Republican and vice-chair of the judicial affairs committee, was the only dissenting vote on the nine-legislator committee, with two members absent. He blasts the action as an unjustified partisan attack.
"There was no evidence of any wrongdoing presented to the committee prior to the vote," says Hartnett. "No prior notice was given to me, and especially no evidence of any wrong activity by the two people outside Harris County. This kind of action by a House committee has a chilling effect on First Amendment rights."
Hartnett contends that the subpoenaed officials were simply voicing their personal dissatisfaction with the justices' ruling.
"Certainly every citizen has the right to publicly express their unhappiness with any court ruling. The letters to the editor [columns] are full of people writing in complaining of court rulings. As long as there was no direct communication by these individuals with the justices, in my opinion there can be no wrongdoing."
Taking the opposite view is South Texas College of Law professor Neil C. McCabe. He contends that while the letters were not actually delivered to Justice Anderson, those who planned the effort may be guilty of a crime.
"The right to free speech does not include a right to engage in criminal conspiracy," opines the professor. "And the facts as reported in the media may support a charge of conspiracy to engage in obstruction or retaliation against a public official, which is a felony."
Harris County District Attorney Johnny Holmes believes no criminal action occurred (see "Suck-Up Time," Insider, July 20), but McCabe cautions that the matter may not have been put to rest.
"In the end, nothing may come of what one judge called an attack on the integrity and independence of the judiciary," concludes McCabe. "On the other hand, the case may not be closed just yet."
When the Committee on Judicial Affairs convenes its hearing on the matter, it might consider calling 209th District Judge Mike McSpadden as an opinion witness. In a letter to Polland last week, the jurist offered this take on the chairman's actions:
"As an attorney, I would think you would respect and honor the independence of our judiciary. Unquestionably, this is not the case as evidenced by your political threats directed at our appellate judges. You seem to have taken the 'bully pulpit' to a new low.
"Hope you understand that if you ever threaten me over a judicial ruling, you may be leaving my office head first.
"Very truly yours, Michael T. McSpadden."
Crumbs for Contributors
Shortly after discarding his Democratic Party affiliation for Republican robes, First Appeals Court Justice M.B. "Murry" Cohen summoned supporters to kick up their heels and fork over campaign cash at a State Bar of Texas fund-raiser in November. In the invite he made the following pledge:
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