It’s a Texas axiom that trial lawyers fuel Democratic politics.
Still, we were struck by a claim by the spokeswoman for Texans for Lawsuit Reform, which advocates litigation limits.
In a Dec. 2, 2012, opinion column in the San Antonio Express-News, Sherry Sylvester said Democrats will not regain ground in statewide elections until the party changes its financial backers and rejects policies routinely pushed in support of personal-injury trial lawyers, whom she called "the primary funders of Texas Democrats."
The "personal-injury" descriptive applies to cases in which a plaintiff says injuries occurred due to the actions or negligence of another person or entity. The American Bar Association says most personal-injury cases arise from automobile accidents, though the label also extends to medical malpractice and other events.
Sylvester further wrote: "Personal-injury trial lawyers not only have provided over 80 percent of the funding for the Texas Democratic Party for over a decade, trial lawyers provided virtually all the funding for the Bexar County Democratic Party in this election."
We focused on the first part of that statement — that more than 80 percent of the state Democratic Party’s funding has come from personal-injury trial lawyers for over a decade, presuming this was not a claim about donations to individual candidates.
Indeed, Sylvester said by phone, she based her analysis on the Texas Democratic Party’s contribution and expenditure reports for 2006 through 2010.
She said, too, that she should not have said the percentage held "for over a decade" without checking the party’s finance reports for 2002 through 2004, which she did before following up with us by email. From 2002 through 2010, Sylvester said, the state party fielded nearly $15.7 million in contributions, not counting contributions from federal Democratic committees such as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee clearly made in connection with federal races, which Sylvester said is not her focus.
Sylvester said $11.75 million, or 75.4 percent of the adjusted total, came from personal-injury trial lawyers or groups steered by them, such as the Texas Democratic Trust, which was a political committee guided by the late Fred Baron, a Dallas lawyer. She later stressed that conclusions should not be reached for 2012 until end-of-year finance reports are filed in January 2013, though rolling in available information for the year only mildly reduces the overall percentage, to 74.7 percent.
Next, we made our own run at identifying such contributions to the party from 2002 through fall 2012. This tally is imperfect given that we likely failed to catch some donations or, conversely, filter them out. We also did not research how many contributions were returned; that occasionally happens.
At any rate, our calculation is that nearly $14 million of more than $18 million given to the party, or 75 percent, came from trial lawyer interests.
Notably, though, the party’s draw from such contributors fluctuated year to year.
In 2002, an election year that included every legislative seat and races for statewide office including governor and the U.S. Senate, more than 70 trial-lawyer-connected contributions accounted for about $5.4 million, or 81 percent, of the party’s $6.7 million in contributions, not counting the party-committee donations targeting federal races. Sylvester separately concluded that $5.5 million of $7.7 million in the party’s contributions, 71 percent, came from trial lawyer interests.
In 2003, by our calculation, such contributions dipped to 26 percent of about $509,000 donated to the party. Such contributions accounted for 36 percent of the party’s donations in 2004 and 24 percent in 2005--well below 80 percent. Then again, such aid accounted for more than 70 percent of party donations from 2006 through 2010, topping out at 93 percent of donations in 2008. Such donations fell to 40 percent of total donations in 2011 and less than 30 percent part-way through 2012.
The group steered by Baron was dominant through the decade, accounting for more than $5 million in contributions. But others also were crucial. Texas 2000, a group organized by trial lawyers, and the Texas Trial Lawyers Association accounted for more than $2.3 million in donations. The Beaumont-based law firm of Provost & Umphrey, ponied up $1 million through October 2008. Nix Patterson & Roach, which has offices in Texarkana, Dallas, Austin and Daingerfield, gave $925,000, while.Houston lawyer John O’Quinn, who has since died, donated $730,000.
A Sept. 26, 2002, Austin American-Statesman news article quoted Craig McDonald of Texans for Public Justice, which tracks campaign-finance spending, as saying that Texas 2000 and the Texas Trial Lawyers Association function just as the political committee of Texans for Lawsuit Reform. "Like-minded individuals appoint a treasurer, sit in a circle and throw some money in the hat," he said. Critics including Sylvester have noted that pro-trial groups often have names not revealing their pro-trial leans.
Separately, we asked the Democratic Party and the trial-lawyers association about the decade-long share of donations from trial-lawyer interests. Party spokesman Jacob Limón emailed that since Gilberto Hinojosa won election as party chairman in June 2012, trial lawyers have not accounted for the majority of contributions--about $32,000 of $91,000 donated to the party between Hinojosa’s election through late September, 35 percent.
Willie Chapman, spokesman for the trial-lawyers association, emailed that while it has not calculated the share of trial-lawyer contributions to either major party, his hunch is that, "whatever the percentage is, using the last decade gives a lot of weight to the multi-year commitment to the Democratic Party made by" Baron.
Sylvester wrote that for over a decade, personal-injury trial lawyers have accounted for over 80 percent of the Texas Democratic Party’s contributions.
When we inquired, she pegged the percentage at 75 percent--what we found as well. So the published percentage is an exaggeration, though certainly trial lawyers have been dominant party benefactors.
On another front, this statement failed to clarify that the share of lawyer contributions bounced around year to year. That is, personal-injury attorneys didn’t consistently account for over 80 percent of party receipts.
We rate the claim as Mostly True.