AUSTIN – The Texas Supreme Court justice who publicly supported close friend Harriet Miers for the U.S. Supreme Court last year has been admonished by the state judicial conduct commission for using his office to promote her nomination.
By telling White House staff to send media inquiries about Miers' career to him and discussing her qualifications in about 120 newspaper, radio and television interviews, including her religious background and views on abortion, Nathan Hecht improperly used his position to support her for the federal bench, the Commission on Judicial Conduct found.
The commission's written admonishment was dated May 10 and released Tuesday.
Texas judicial conduct rules prohibit judges from lending the prestige of their office to boost the private interests of themselves or others.
They also prohibit judges from allowing their names to be used to endorse candidates for office.
"Justice Hecht allowed his name and title to be used by the press and the White House in support of his close friend, Harriet Miers, a nominee for the office of United States Supreme Court Justice," the commission said.
It said his statements "would be construed as an endorsement of Miers' candidacy, as those terms are commonly used and understood."
Hecht, a Republican, said the ruling restricts his right to free speech. He hired prominent First Amendment attorney Chip Babcock of Houston to challenge it.
"I believe that my statements on matters of national public interest did not offend canons of judicial ethics and were fully protected by the First Amendment as core speech," Hecht said in a prepared statement.
Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson appointed three appeals court judges, Kerry FitzGerald and Amos Mazzant of Dallas and Ann McClure of El Paso, to consider Hecht's case.
Babcock said judges have long been asked to give their views on judicial nominees without facing similar discipline.
"Judges have been appearing before the judiciary committee and talking to the press for at least 40 years about nominees for the judicial bench," Babcock said. "Nobody had a problem with it before."
President Bush nominated Miers for the court last year to replace the retiring Sandra Day O'Connor. Miers eventually withdrew her name under fire from conservatives who wouldn't support her.
According to the commission, the White House contacted Hecht two days before her nomination was made public. He agreed to discuss her experience and background with Focus on the Family founder James Dobson.
Hecht also discussed the large media interest in her nomination and agreed to have the White House send reporters to him. He agreed to make daily reports to the White House about his media contacts.
In some of his interviews, Hecht said Miers' nomination would be "good for the country" and that she would make a "good justice."
Two complaints were filed against Hecht. One remains anonymous under state law and the other came from the commission itself, said Seana Willing, the commission's executive director.