Hundreds of Baylor law students, professors and members of the public packed Baylor Law School on Wednesday morning to listen in on oral arguments before the Supreme Court of Texas.
The two cases, one from the Dallas Court of Appeals and the other from Houston’s 14th Court of Appeals, were the last two cases on the docket to be heard by the state’s highest court this term.
Unlike most other U.S. states, which require their respective Supreme Courts to hear cases in the state capitol, the Supreme Court of Texas has been allowed to hear cases anywhere in the state through an amendment to the state constitution in the 1990s.
“For many years in the 19th century, the Supreme Court was required to come around the state and sit on circuit, but we supported the passage of a constitutional amendment that required the court to sit in Austin,” Chief Justice Nathan Hecht said during the introduction to the proceeding. “Recently,though, it seemed that it would be good to sit throughout the state so that people would have the chance to see oral arguments in their own locales. So, since the 1990s, the court has been doing that.”
The first case, listed by the court as “Texas Department of Insurance, Workers’ Compensation Division v. Bonnie Jones and American Home Insurance Co.” was focused on the issue of workers’ compensation benefits.
During oral arguments, counsel for the Texas Department of Insurance argued before the court that “small-money” settlements involving worker compensation benefits were not in the best interest of the court to grant because of the immense difficulties this would place on the state court system. Counsel also argued that state workers’ compensation law is specific enough to address such issues through mediation. Opposing counsel disputed this claim as well as the timing of the workers’ compensation claim made by the opposing party in the suit.
Following a short break, the court heard oral arguments for the second case, listed by the court as “Benton Stanfield v. Jon T. Neubaum and Barbara Neubaum.”
In this case, the Neubaums claimed that their counsel had misrepresented them in lower court, committed malpractice and negligence and sued for damages under malpractice law. Opposing counsel, however, cited concerns that interpreting the law in this manner would allow for an influx of frivolous suits by anyone who felt as though their attorneys had not represented them well enough.
Oral arguments by both the petitioners and the respondents in this case were made by Baylor Law School alumni Sam Houston and Kristin Bays, respectively, at the very institution they began their studies of the law.
Following oral arguments, the nine judges returned to the bench for a brief Q&A period with Baylor law students.
Most notable was one student’s question regarding Justice Don Willett’s strong Twitter presence and how it affects his decisions while sitting on the court.
“I don’t really peruse or scroll through my Twitter feed mining for legal wisdom,” Willett said. “But I do follow a lot of law-related and legal-related Twitter feeds, and it’s a great way to stay on top of everything that’s going on, but I can’t say I consulted to aid in my decision-making.”
“It initially began for me as a political communications tool,” Willett said. “We are utterly mysterious to most voters. So whatever you can do to remove distance and raise awareness is all to the good. Whatever you can do to demystify the judicial branch of government, I think, is a good civic benefit.”
With the conclusion of the docket for the session, justices will resume court business in 2017 following the 2016 election cycle. Three seats – held by justices Eva Guzman (R), Debra Lehrmann (R) and Paul Green (R) – are all open during the election. All three justices defeated primary opponents in March and will face opponents in the general election this November.