Three members of the Austin-based Texas Supreme Court staged an unofficial relaunch of the court’s popular biannual road trips Wednesday, holding a public forum at the Fort Worth Club to answer questions about the court’s work and the justices’ views on a variety of legal issues.
The justices, all Republicans campaigning for re-election, were in North Texas for fundraising events in Fort Worth and Dallas, and in between resumed the road trip tradition that takes the court to various locations around the state twice a year to hear oral arguments..
The practice began in 1997 after voters approved a state constitutional amendment allowing the court to meet outside of Austin. The trips are intended to help educate the public on how the court operates.
With only three of court’s nine justices on hand, Wednesday’s event wasn’t an official road trip meeting, but it was a chance for Justices Debra Lehrmann (Place 3), Rebeca Huddle (Place 5) and Evan A. Young (Place 9) to meet with folks, answer a few questions and explain what the court does and how it works with the other two branches of government (legislative and executive). Fort Worth defense attorney Trent Marshall moderated the event, asking a few questions of his own before turning it over to the small-but-inquisitive audience.
And, of course, the subject of the leaked draft of a U.S. Supreme Court opinion indicating that the court will oveturn the historic Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion was a hot topic among the audience. Legal observers say the leak of a U.S. Supreme Court opinion before it is officially handed down is unprecedented.
“It’s such a unique thing to have happen. It’s such an unfortunate thing the way it happened,” Young said. “Now that it’s there, what if it changes? Is it in response to the leak? Opinions change all the time.”
Young also stressed concern about possible lack of consequences for whoever leaked the document. He said if the leaker goes unpunished this could be the first of many leaks of court opinions involving sensitive or controversial issues.
A would-be leaker might assume, “If he can get away with it, why can’t I?” Young said.
Young said he hopes every clerk and court employee is questioned in a one-on-one setting, but Huddle suggested a group meeting.
“Put it on the other clerks to speak up if they know about the situation,” she said. “This was so shocking to me. It kept me up Monday night.”
Lehrmann said the only leak she recalls at the Texas Supreme Court occurred when clerks accidentally leaked some information to lawyers sitting at the next table in a restaurant.
“That example is given at every orientation,” she said.
If the Roe v. Wade leaker was a law clerk, an audience member asked, should the clerk be stripped of their law license?
“I think they should be in jail,” Young responded,
Later, Young added facetiously, “That leaker, right now he or she may be negotiating the rights to the Netflix special.”
Lerhmann added, “I would guess the person who did this believes they were doing the right thing.”
Young said getting the FBI to investigate is an option, but not one he favors as that would have one independent branch of government (executive) investigating another (judicial).
An audience member asked if there should be an investigation into Politico, the media organization that reported the leak, trying to force them to reveal their source. None of the justices seemed to that, given the First Amendment guarantee of a free press.
“What a mess that would be,” Young said.
Huddle said she believes the source of the leak will be revealed within a few days.
Lehrmann, the longest-serving woman on the court, has been a justice since 2010. She is from Fort Worth and said it was good to be home, if only for a bit.
“I always tell people Fort Worth is a small town with a lot of people,” she said with a laugh. “We all know each other very well.”
The court’s last official road trip was in 2019, shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic forced suspension of the trips. That trip also brought the justices to Fort Worth, to hear arguments in a high-profile legal battle involving feuding owners of Billy Bob’s Texas. The hearing was held at the Texas A&M University School of Law.
Now that pandemic restrictions have eased, Lehrmann said, this seemed like a good time to relaunch the court’s road trips.
“We saw this as an opportunity to go throughout the state. We are campaigning anyway,” she said.
Huddle is the first native El Pasoan to serve on the Texas Supreme Court. She was appointed by Governor Greg Abbott to replace Paul Green, who retired in August 2020.
Young is the newest member of the court, having also been appointed by Abbott and joining the court in November 2021 after Eva Guzman resigned to launch her unsuccessful bid for Texas Attorney General.
“I’m the one who is expected to get the coffee,” Young joked.
To which Lehrmann responded, drawing a laugh, “He has to (get the coffee)!”
Young recalled his experience serving as a clerk for the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
“It was a calling, it really was for him,” Young said. “I can never be what he was, but I can try.”
Trent Marshall asked the justices if the court sees a role for virtual meetings on platforms such as Zoom and Google Meet, which were employed by many governmental institutions during the pandemic. Lehrmann said the possibility of hearings being held on Zoom is currently being studied as a way to help with backlogs.
“We did have all of our oral arguments by Zoom during the pandemic and it went fine,” she said.
The justices thanked the audience as the event concluded and asked those in attendance to be sure and tell others what they learned.
“People who will come out to an event like this are the kind we need to amplify the message,” Young said.