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Despite ties to defendants, Texas Supreme Court justice didn’t recuse himself from sex abuse case

By Robert Downen, The Texas Tribune

Despite ties to defendants, Texas Supreme Court justice didn’t recuse himself from sex abuse case” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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In 2022, the Texas Supreme Court declined to kill a high-profile sex abuse lawsuit against former Southern Baptist Convention leader Paul Pressler and his longtime law partner, Jared Woodfill.

For Justice John Devine, the case involved some familiar names: Years before taking the bench, he had worked at Woodfill and Pressler’s small Houston law firm. In fact, Devine’s tenure at the firm overlapped with the time that the plaintiff, a former employee of the firm, was allegedly molested by Pressler.

Two other justices, who previously worked for the law firm representing the plaintiff, recused themselves. Devine didn’t — and instead dissented from the court’s 5-2 decision that allowed the suit to go forward after a challenge to its statute of limitations.

The lawsuit would eventually make public numerous other abuse allegations against Pressler. It also prompted a deposition last year in which Woodfill testified that he had for years used the firm’s funds to pay young men to work out of Pressler’s home despite repeated warnings of his predations. Woodfill was not accused of sexual abuse in the lawsuit.

Devine’s campaign website, Supreme Court biography and profile on WestLaw, a major legal repository, do not mention his work at the firm, Woodfill & Pressler LLP, which had about 10 employees during Devine’s time there.

This July 2003 court filing is one of many that list John Devine as an attorney with the Woodfill & Pressler law firm.
This July 2003 court filing is one of many that list John Devine as an attorney with the Woodfill & Pressler law firm. Credit: Harris County court records

But the Texas Tribune reviewed thousands of pages of court records in lawsuits handled by Woodfill & Pressler LLP, and found that Devine was listed as an attorney or guardian ad litem with the firm at least 27 times between 2002 and 2008, including nine suits that were filed while the plaintiff in the sex abuse lawsuit worked for the firm as Pressler’s personal aide.

Asked last week about his involvement with the firm, Devine downplayed his work there and said he had no reason to recuse himself because he had “no personal knowledge of the facts” in the lawsuit or a financial stake in the firm or the case’s outcome.

“There was no basis for me to recuse from the case,” Devine wrote in an email to the Tribune. “I had no financial interest in the case; never participated in it; and had no personal knowledge of the facts. Two decades ago, I jointly tried some cases with Jared Woodfill. But we were never law partners; I had no financial interest in his firm; and I had no knowledge of the firm’s inner workings. I never worked with Pressler. My understanding was that he was just a name on the door.”

He continued: “Every judge working on a court knows other lawyers. In the practice of law, sometimes you are on the same side of the table, and sometimes it’s the other side. That is not a basis for recusal in a completely unrelated case decades later.”

Devine did not respond to two follow-up emails in which the Tribune detailed its findings, including that he was listed multiple times as co-counsel on cases with Pressler.

Revelations of Devine’s involvement with the firm come barely a month after the sex abuse lawsuit was settled by Pressler, the Southern Baptist Convention and other defendants. Now, Woodfill is running for a Texas House seat with the backing of Attorney General Ken Paxton.

Devine, a Republican who joined the Supreme Court in 2012, is up for reelection this year, and is the only justice facing a challenger in the March 5 statewide primary. His opponent, Second District Court of Appeals Judge Brian Walker, has centered his campaign on questions about Devine’s ethics, including in the Pressler case and in other instances in which he ruled on lawsuits brought by Woodfill.

“I have a hard time believing that Judge Devine didn’t know about the allegations,” Walker said in an interview. “It’s clear to me that he was still trying to help Woodfill and Pressler out when he essentially voted to keep the lawsuit from moving forward.”

Two other justices, who previously worked for the law firm representing the plaintiff, recused themselves when the suit was considered by the Supreme Court, though they did not provide reasons.

Legal experts acknowledged there are often gray areas when it comes to judicial recusals — particularly in Texas, where justices are elected and can find themselves presiding over legal disputes that involve political allies and supporters.

But they cited the Texas Code of Judicial Conduct, which requires judges to preserve the “integrity and independence of the judiciary” and avoid “impropriety and the appearance of impropriety.”

“I don’t think that this is a close call,” said Heather Zirke, director of the Miller Becker Center for Professional Responsibility at the University of Akron School of Law. “Judges have a duty to avoid even the appearance of impropriety.”

Woodfill, who did not respond to requests for comment, is a former Harris County Republican Party chair and prominent opponent of gay and transgender rights. He is challenging Rep. Lacey Hull, R-Houston, for a Texas House seat. He appeared last week at a Houston fundraiser with Paxton, who briefly and without prompting praised Devine and blasted what he said were smear attacks against Devine by Walker.

Pressler is a former Texas appeals court judge and political activist who co-led the Southern Baptist Convention’s “conservative resurgence” in the 1980s and 1990s, during which the nation’s second-largest faith group adopted literal interpretations of the Bible, strongly condemned homosexuality and more closely aligned with the Republican Party. Pressler, now 93, has been accused by at least seven men of sexual abuse or misconduct. He has not been criminally charged.

Asked about Devine’s time at the firm, Pressler’s attorney in the sex abuse lawsuit said that he knew “nothing about this.”

Longtime Colleagues 

Devine’s ties to Woodfill and Pressler date back nearly three decades.

While serving as a Harris County district judge in 1996, Devine was reportedly chastised for mixing his judicial and political work after presiding over a legal dispute over political advertisements between a major labor union and then-U.S. Rep. Steve Stockman, a Houston-area Republican who was represented by Woodfill.

Devine was the judge in that case, and acknowledged that its outcome could affect him because he was running for Congress at the time. Nonetheless, Devine initially rebuffed concerns about potential conflicts of interest, instead using the hearing to publicly blast the union. Devine recused himself before another hearing on the case the next day.

After losing his congressional race, Devine launched a bid for reelection to Harris County district court.

Pressler was thrilled.

“You know that you have my enthusiastic support, and I will be glad to do anything in the world that you want me to do to be of assistance to you,” Pressler wrote to Devine in a 1998 letter obtained by the Tribune. “We are looking forward to seeing a lot of you, and I am looking forward to participating in your reelection.”

In this February 2004 court filing, John Devine listed himself as with Woodfill & Pressler LLP.
In this February 2004 court filing, John Devine listed himself as with Woodfill & Pressler LLP. Credit: Harris County court records

Devine won that race and remained a Harris County judge until 2001, when he resigned to run for Harris County attorney. He lost in the 2002 Republican primary and began working at Woodfill & Pressler LLP not long after.

From 2002 to late 2004, Devine was listed in court filings as an attorney or guardian ad litem with the firm on more than 20 different lawsuits, sometimes with one or both of the firm’s two namesakes. The Tribune did not find any court documents that listed Devine at the firm in 2005 and 2006, though he remained close to Woodfill, who was then the chairman of the Harris County GOP and floated Devine as a potential replacement after U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land, resigned amid a scandal in 2006.

In 2007 and 2008 Devine was listed as an attorney with Woodfill and Pressler’s firm in at least seven lawsuits, including one in which he and Woodifll represented plaintiffs suing a major rail company that included a six-week jury trial. In another lawsuit, Woodfill, Devine and Pressler represented the Republican Party of Texas in an appeals court.

Sometime around 2009, court records show that Devine began working as an attorney with a separate firm. That year, he also ran for a Montgomery County judgeship — again with support from Pressler — and, after losing that race, Devine announced in a letter to his supporters that he was starting a private law practice serving the cities of Magnolia and Tomball.

In 2011 — and after more than a decade of unsuccessful campaigns for elected office — Devine launched a bid for Texas Supreme Court, winning in a landslide.

In Devine’s first term, the Supreme Court considered a lawsuit in which Woodfill and others challenged the City of Houston’s decision to extend benefits to married, same-sex couples. Devine dissented, siding with his former colleague — as he has since done in at least two other lawsuits brought by Woodfill.

In September 2021, an apparently dissatisfied former client left an angry online review of Woodfill’s law firm, which he said had been recommended to him by a powerful judge.

“Justice John Devine recommended him to me,” he wrote.

Sex abuse lawsuit

By the time the sex abuse lawsuit was before the Supreme Court in 2022, multiple allegations against Pressler had been made public — as had an assault lawsuit from 2004, when Devine worked at the firm, and an affidavit alleging Woodfill knew of Pressler’s behavior.

At issue in the suit were claims made by Duane Rollins, a former member of Pressler’s youth group in the 1980s, who took a job with Woodfill & Pressler LLP in 2003. Rollins worked mostly out of Pressler’s home during that time, though he would sometimes come into the firm, Woodfill later testified.

In 2004, Rollins filed the first of what would be multiple suits against Pressler, alleging that the religious leader had physically assaulted him in a Dallas hotel room months earlier. As part of the suit, another former Woodfill & Pressler LLP employee also filed a sworn affidavit in which he said Pressler had forcibly undressed and groped him.

Pressler was represented by Woodfill in that 2004 suit, which was settled for $450,000 in a one-day mediation, and also included future liability protections for Woodfill & Pressler LLP.

Rollins spent much of the next 12 years in prison for drug- and alcohol-related charges. Then, in 2015, court records show that he had an outcry statement to a prison psychiatrist, and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder resulting from childhood sexual abuse. It was a clarifying moment for Rollins, who later said that he had developed lifelong drug and alcohol addictions to block out the memories of the abuses.

In 2017, Rollins filed a new lawsuit in which he alleged that Pressler had sexually abused him for decades, beginning when Rollins was 14 and continuing through his employment at Woodfill & Pressler LLP. Rollins also sued Woodfill, the firm, the Southern Baptist Convention and other defendants who he claimed had enabled or concealed Pressler’s behavior.

Rollins’ abuse claims were soon substantiated by other court documents that were extensively covered by news outlets in 2018 — four years before the Supreme Court ruled on the lawsuit. In one sworn affidavit, a man alleged that he was molested by Pressler in 1978. In another affidavit, an attorney from Woodfill’s firm alleged that Pressler’s behavior was common knowledge at Woodfill’s firm, and provided emails from 2016 in which he alerted Woodfill that Pressler had asked him to hot-tub naked together and bragged about being nude with men. The 2004 lawsuit settlement was also made public.

But Rollins’ new lawsuit always faced an uphill battle: By the time he filed it in 2017, the statute of limitations on his claims had long elapsed, and it was eventually dismissed in Harris County district court.

Rollins then enlisted the help of Baker Botts, a powerful Houston firm that appealed the dismissal. They argued that Rollins was so traumatized by the abuse that he developed a sort of Stockholm syndrome that, coupled with his drug and alcohol addictions, prevented him from recognizing himself as an abuse victim until years after the statute of limitations had passed. Thus, Baker Botts argued, Rollins’ window for filing claims should have begun when he realized he was abused, rather than from the date of the last abuse.

In a rare move and huge victory for sexual abuse survivors and their advocates, an appeals court eventually agreed with Rollins. The Southern Baptist Convention then appealed that decision to the Supreme Court, which — and despite Devine’s dissent — declined to hear it, allowing it to go forward.

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