Texans for Lawsuit Reform was once a principled and focused single-issue group.

They had a noble cause when they stormed onto the scene in the 1990s. Their mission was reforming an out-of-control civil justice system in Texas.

In the 1990s, Texas was known as the “lawsuit capital of the world.” In those days, plaintiff’s attorneys held immense power. Texans for Lawsuit Reform was needed to stop a barrage of constant litigation. So, they organized to change the system and, in doing so, became a dominant force in Texas politics.

They won.

Texans for Lawsuit Reform (TLR) notched concrete policy wins. They achieved the power and influence they sought to change Texas. But as their goals were met, interests and incentives shifted. They inevitably faced a reckoning: stay true to the principles that defined its creation, or succumb to the temptations of the political-influence game.

Pro-business or Pro-power

In May 2021, TLR co-founder Dick Weekley appeared on a podcast. He looked into TLR’s history and stamped down that they had achieved their mission long ago. He then turned to the future. Weekley said that TLR had “evolved” into a pro-business group.

Free Market economist Milton Friedman cautioned about the term pro-business. “I’m not pro-business. I’m pro-free enterprise, which is a very different thing,” he stated in episode two of his 1980 Free To Choose mini-series. “The strongest argument for free enterprise is that it prevents anybody from having too much power—whether that person is a government official, a trade union official, or a business executive—it forces them to put up, or shut up.”

This concept of too much power stood out in Texas during the 1990s with the trial lawyer giants. Thirty years later, the giant slayers are now the giants.

In the above-referenced podcast, Weekley acknowledged that TLR is focused on being generational.

“There’s some new talent coming in, and we need it,” Weekley said. He noted how one of the founders, Leo Linbeck, was dead, and the other three were 75 years old at the time of the recording. “TLR is a very important … political infrastructure in Texas and we’ve just gotta find a way to make it sustainable … by bringing in younger folks, which we’re trying to do.”

Clinging to Power

Today, TLR frantically celebrates wins on social media—wins that came decades ago. They’ve been fundraising on them to the tune of tens of millions. As reported in part three of this series, they’ve meanwhile railroaded conservative candidates and issues in Austin.

As of May 10, 2024, Transparency USA reported that TLR has more than $29 million in the bank. TLR has become one of the most well-funded PACs in Texas, doling out millions each election cycle, mostly to protect incumbent legislators in the name of being pro-business.

They also have deployed lobbyists to do their bidding. Same-day reporting by Transparency USA showed they’ve spent between $1 million to more than $2 million on lobbyists. Those who crossed TLR, even Republicans who were once allies and voted lock-step with the organization on sound tort legislation, found themselves in the group’s crosshairs.

“A high percentage of House members depend on TLR for most of their money, they don’t depend on their constituents,” Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton told Texas Scorecard. “They don’t depend on the people who elect them, and so they don’t listen to them. They listen to TLR.”

Realignment and Mission Creep

TLR’s search for purpose led to some odd choices.

Back in 1998, Dick Weekley and TLR allied with two education groups to push school choice—a top desired reform by Texans in 2023 and 2024—in the Texas legislature. TLR founded Texans for Education Reform in 2013. It was widely regarded as a flop.

When that fell flat, they busied themselves with topics that seemed to have nothing to do with their original purpose. In 2019, TLR targeted the Texas Citizens Participation Act (TCPA). This little-known law is very important for free speech. It bolsters the First Amendment rights of Texans by protecting public participation. Oftentimes, companies or wealthy individuals who can afford to pay lawyers into perpetuity can silence critics with litigation.

“The Texas Citizens Participation Act is the most important statute in the country or in the state, in terms of protecting people from abusive litigation,” Attorney Tony McDonald told Texas Scorecard.

The once-tort reformers were now pushing for action that would increase lawsuits. They succeeded with House Bill 2730. The new law started to narrow the scope of protection for Texans under TCPA.

TLR’s realignment away from conservatism and toward corporate interests manifested in the organization setting itself against the Texas GOP grassroots as well.

During the 2023 legislative session, a measure was proposed to allow civil liability for doctors who perform gender mutilation procedures on minors. TLR stepped in to quash it behind the scenes. “Everything we kept hearing was TLR doesn’t want this to go, TLR doesn’t like this bill, they don’t want this to pass,” said Brady Gray, president of Texas Family Project, which supported the legislation.

Critics argue this posture toward the conservative base was inevitable. TLR’s funding sources and the incentives were at play. “In order to continue to attract donors, corporate donors, at some point, you start serving their agenda rather than using their resources to fight for your agenda,” said attorney and former TLR supporter Mark Pulliam. “At some point, I think they’ve lost sight of their true magnetic north in terms of tort reform.”

Over time, TLR’s actions have drained their credibility bar amongst an increasing number of conservatives. Many see the last straw as their public campaign to impeach Attorney General Ken Paxton in 2023.

A Murky Future

The story of TLR is, in many ways, the story of interest group politics writ large. They start as idealistic outsiders organized to change the system. Along the way, they become the new insiders, zealously guarding their seat at the table. As interests and incentives shift, the group inevitably faces a reckoning. They can stay true to the principles that defined their creation and made them heroes or succumb to the temptations of the political influence game and become the very thing they once opposed.

TLR’s original mission has largely been accomplished. Ahead lies a murky new agenda beholden to corporate benefactors, with a growing number of detractors on the right. Candidly, the group may find itself a victim of its own initial success. They achieved the power and influence they thought necessary to change Texas. But now, they must grapple with how to wield it and to what end. If they fail to recalibrate, TLR could see its hard-won clout diminish as quickly as it once grew.

“They are not the TLR of 10 years ago that I voted with; they are completely different,” Paxton said. “And they have become very overconfident and somewhat arrogant in their views on their abilities.”

Paxton thinks they should just close their doors. “Texas for Lawsuit Reform has long since passed its prime, it is on another path, it should just go away,” Paxton said. “Maybe they get new leadership, or we find another organization that can relook at this . . . They’ve done enough damage over the last couple of years. And it’s time for them to do something different.”

Vigilance of Power

The failed impeachment of Ken Paxton dealt a massive blow to the TLR leviathan and one of its aging founders: Dick Trabulsi, co-founder and chairman of TLR’s Political Action Committee. He is also a longtime Democrat operative.

The Dallas Morning News carried an op-ed written by him after the impeachment. In the piece, Trabulsi denied instigating the impeachment. He suggested that past donations to Paxton somehow compensated for TLR’s efforts to have him removed from office.

Fourteen years ago, during a 2010 interview, Trabulsi was asked, “In 1994, you came in and had some successes. You’ve had success since. What do you still want?” Trabulsi responded, “We want eternal vigilance.”

That statement raises another question. Does TLR insist on vigilance of the issue it’s supposed to busy itself with? Or the vigilance of power?

If Trabulsi’s op-ed is any indication, at this point, it’s unlikely TLR will gracefully step back from its faltering position.

Can it pivot to new causes in an attempt to maintain its relevance and influence in Texas politics?

Which path TLR ultimately takes remains to be seen. But after nearly 30 years as a dominant force in Texas politics, its future is anything but certain. For Mark Pulliam, one thing is clear. “Texans for Lawsuit Reform has lost its way,” he said. “It’s morphed into something quite different than what was intended, and that’s a real shame. Because what it was intended to do was quite noble and important.”

Daniel Greer

Daniel Greer is the Director of Innovation for Texas Scorecard.

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