Few organizations have ever wielded as much power in state government as Texans for Lawsuit Reform. Organized as a pro-business lobby group fighting the trial lawyers, TLR has a campaign war chest exceeding most statewide candidates — and is the top spender in political campaigns. Yet in recent years, TLR has been quietly blocking Republican priorities, propping up Democrats in the Legislature, and even working with the trial lawyers.
Funding a Trial Lawyer
The re-election campaign of Grayson County Republican State Rep. Reggie Smith makes for an interesting example. First elected in 2018, Smith’s legislative record can be best described as “weak.” He holds a career rating of “F” on the Fiscal Responsibility Index maintained by Texans for Fiscal Responsibility — though it is a weak “F”, a 66 of 100 in the most recent session. The Young Conservatives of Texas put him at a “76,” or a middling C.
Most notably, Smith was one of those Republicans who worked to ensure Democrats could continue to hold key chairmanships in the Texas House — putting liberals in positions to block conservative efforts.
In his day job, Smith is a trial lawyer whose practice focuses on “personal injury litigation.”
All that earned him a challenge from small-business owner Shelley Luther. She’s the salon owner who was jailed after refusing to keep her business closed during the Greg Abbott-ordered economic shutdown. She styles herself as a pro-business Republican, running against a trial lawyer. And she is.
Yet in this match up, Reggie Smith is being heavily supported by Texans for Lawsuit Reform in his re-election bid. He is a trial lawyer handling “personal injury litigation,” the very lawyers and cases TLR was formed to fight against. But he is a trial lawyer favored by the Austin establishment.
Even more revealing, campaign finance reports reviewed by Transparency USA show that the top five donors to Smith include TLR (at more than $90,000) … and the Texas Trial Lawyers Association PAC (at almost $20,000). Not only is TLR funding the candidate of the Texas Trial Lawyers Association, they are doing so by a factor of four.
This shouldn’t be a surprise to those who have watched TLR move from singularly issue-focused — as it was in the 1990s, on reforming the state’s horrible tort environment — to occupying a big seat in the backrooms of the Capitol.
Batting Away GOP Priorities
Republican lawmakers say it is TLR that calls the shots when GOP priorities are batted away.
“TLR doesn’t want any social issues discussed,” said one Republican lawmaker, asking that his name not be used so he won’t draw the dire of (and opposition from) TLR. “They’d really rather the GOP was more liberal on social issues, or at least just not talk about them.”
TLR was cozy with liberal House Speaker Joe Straus (who retired in the face of conservative opposition), and then was a cheerleader for disgraced former Speaker Dennis Bonnen (who was forced from office in a quid-pro-quo scandal). Now, they are working in lockstep with incumbent liberal Speaker Dade Phelan.
Indeed, as the donation history in the Smith-Luther race shows, PACs and accounts associated with TLR, Bonnen, and Phelan move in tandem.
Protecting the Crony Cartel
As an insider group, TLR has developed a habit of protecting incumbents without regard to their marquee issue — except when those incumbents are conservatives.
For example, they are funding State Rep. James White’s long-shot bid to unseat popular Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller in the Republican primary, despite the incumbent’s endorsement from President Donald Trump. Why is TLR the top funder in the Ag Commissioner race? The position is as far from “tort” policy as one can get in state government, and neither man is a trial lawyer (though, as the Reggie Smith race demonstrates, TLR will fund the Democrat trial lawyer candidates). It is because the Austin lobby doesn’t like Miller’s readiness to call out Republicans for their bad actions (like Miller did with Abbott during the economic shutdown).
Indeed, TLR’s spending seems more focused on ingratiating itself in with the Austin crony cartel rather than actually promoting its interests.
That’s also seen in TLR’s heavy funding of former Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman in her bid to unseat incumbent Ken Paxton. Guzman’s top “donor” is the TLR PAC, followed by TLR founder Richard Weekley. The rest of Guzman’s donor list is most indistinguishable from that of TLR, which is to say: moderate-to-liberal businessmen more interested in protecting the status quo than advancing conservative reforms.
To say TLR is going in big against Ken Paxton (another Trump endorsee) would be an understatement.
Leading with her ethnicity rather than her qualifications, Guzman’s record on the bench has not be particularly distinguished. One of Guzman’s former colleagues on the Supreme Court described her as “reliably unreliable” and someone who would “rather be a Democrat.”
Rather Be a Democrat
“Rather be a Democrat” seems to embody a lot of the work around TLR. The organization’s political action committee recently hired former State Rep. Eddie Lucio III, a liberal Democrat, as its lawyer. The chairman of TLR, Richard Trabulsi, was a Democrat staffer for President Jimmy Carter.
In their 2019 summary of the legislative session, Trabulsi wrote glowingly of the Texas Legislature’s practice of letting Democrats hold “meaningful committee assignments” despite the GOP holding every statewide office and both chambers.
“In Texas, the minority party is respected by the majority party and is a full participant in the legislative process,” wrote Trabulsi.
Democrat Committee Chairs
That “respect” is not a two-way street, as evidenced by those same Democrats bolting the state to thwart the “legislative process” in 2021. Rather than punish the quorum-breakers, TLR has continued to make contributions to Democrats whom Phelan appointed as chairmen, as well as others in the obstruction caucus.
TLR’s funding of Democrats has long been an open secret in Austin, as the group attempted to position itself as a moderate Republican — but, Republican — powerbroker. That facade was shattered earlier this month when a Republican candidate for an open House seat paid for a TV ad blasting his opponent for taking money from the group that is funding Democrats.
Biggest of Big Spenders
TLR’s political action committee has raised $53 million since 2015 and spent $40 million. In the 2022 election cycle, Transparency USA reports TLR is the second-largest actor in state elections. It is spending three times what the closest “conservative” political committee (Defend Texas Liberty, run by former GOP State Rep. Jonathan Stickland) has done.
With its massive war chest, TLR is likely to continue as a powerbroker in Austin for a long time to come. By enabling Democrats and crony Republicans to hold sway in the legislative process, it is unlikely TLR is making the way for anything conservative grassroots activists like or want.
And since they are funding candidates supported by the liberal trial lawyers, the “lawsuit reform” in their name seems to mean less and less.