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Texas Supreme Court Justice John Devine narrowly survives heated primary centered on judicial ethics

By Robert Downen, The Texas Tribune

Texas Supreme Court Justice John Devine narrowly survives heated primary centered on judicial ethics” 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 a surprise nail-biter, Texas Supreme Court Justice John Devine narrowly survived an unexpectedly heated GOP primary challenge that centered on questions about his judicial ethics.

Devine beat Second District Court of Appeals Brian Walker by 1 percentage point of the vote.

Three Supreme Court seats are open this year, but Devine was the only justice with a primary challenger. He will now face 281st District Judge Christine Vinh Weems in a November general election that could be equally heated — Democrats in the state have targeted the high court this year, hoping that backlash to rulings on abortion, the border and LGTBQ+ issues will mobilize enough voters to unseat incumbents on the all-Republican bench. And Devine, a former anti-abortion activist who has pushed back against gay rights, is likely to be a focal point of democrats’ strategy.

Devine entered the race with a clear edge, and with the backing of powerful conservative Christian groups and voters who’ve supported him for 30 years.

He has called church-state separation a “myth,” fought to have the Ten Commandments displayed in his Harris County district courtroom in the 1990s and, as a Tea Party-backed candidate for the Supreme Court in 2012, successfully campaigned on claims that he was arrested 37 times at abortion protests in the 1980s.

After initially dismissing the seriousness of Walker’s campaign, Devine faced a bruising final stretch of the primary in which his ethics took center stage. Walker, a 46-year-old Air Force veteran and one-term appeals court judge with little statewide name recognition, spent weeks blasting Devine for skipping half of oral arguments before the court to campaign this year. And he painted Devine as an unethical jurist who had used the bench to advance his ultraconservative religious views and political ambitions at the expense of his impartiality and the public’s confidence in the judiciary.

Walker reiterated those concerns on Wednesday morning.

“I’m very encouraged by the support I received and I pray that Judge Devine sees this as a referendum,” Walker told The Texas Tribune. “I hope he presses into his job all the more and strives to do it in a way that makes most Texans proud.”

Last month, The Texas Tribune published remarks from a September speech in which Devine railed against his fellow justices, saying they were “brainwashed” and cared more about abiding by legal processes than their “fidelity to the Constitution.” In the speech, he also claimed that the state’s all-GOP Court of Criminal Appeals was controlled by “RINOs” and “trans-Republicans.”

Weeks earlier, the Tribune also reported that Devine did not recuse himself when the court ruled in 2022 on a high-profile sex abuse lawsuit against his former colleagues, Southern Baptist leader Paul Pressler and his law partner Jared Woodfill. The plaintiff in the lawsuit was a former employee of Pressler and Woodfill’s firm who alleged that he was abused while working there — and at the same time as Devine. (Woodfill, who ran for a Houston seat in the Texas House with the backing of Attorney General Ken Paxton and other Republican leaders, lost handily to incumbent Rep. Lacey Hull on Tuesday).

Walker had banked on a surge of Election Day voters, hoping they’d be disenfranchised with Devine after a late flurry of concerns about his ethics. That strategy initially seemed to pan out: As vote tallies continued to trickle in through Wednesday morning, Walker slowly chipped away at Devine’s advantage from early and mail-in voting, and won by significant margins in major counties such as Dallas and Bexar. But it wasn’t enough to overcome Devine’s massive support in Harris County — his former home turf — where his 65% vote share neutralized Walker’s 51% advantage in all other counties combined.

Walker is a seventh-generation Texan who was first elected to the district court in 2020. He is a graduate of the University of Houston Law School and Dallas Theological Seminary, and previously served as the campaign manager for his father, Scott Walker, who was elected to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in 2016.

The Court of Criminal Appeals and state Supreme Court are Texas’ two highest judicial bodies, with the latter handling civil matters. No Democrats serve on either body.

Devine’s win came as the Court of Criminal Appeals faced its own upheaval on Tuesday night, the product of a yearslong effort by Paxton and his allies to remove judges who had voted that his office could not unilaterally prosecute local voting crimes. All three of the incumbent justices were soundly defeated by Paxton-backed challengers.

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