The Case Against John Cornyn

If the controversial attorney general of Texas were in the dock, the charges against him would boil down to this: playing politics with the law at the expense of the public interest. Is he guilty?

In normal times, the State Attorney General’s office is not a hotbed of controversy. It is, as its current occupant, John Cornyn, likes to say, the biggest law firm in the state, and much of its functioning is routine: approving bond issues, collecting delinquent child support payments, issuing advisory opinions, and defending state officials and agencies in run-of-the-mill lawsuits. Occasionally a high-profile case comes along, most notably the landmark suit against the tobacco industry initiated by Cornyn’s predecessor, Dan Morales, but it is more typical that months and even years will go by without the AG making a big splash in the Texas political pond.

But things have been different around the AG’s eighth-floor sanctuary on the north side of the Capitol grounds since Cornyn took over following the Republican electoral sweep of 1998. The former Texas Supreme Court justice has been in the news so often that he has hardly been out of it. He tried first to eviscerate, then to eliminate altogether, the $3.3 billion in fees awarded to the team of outside plaintiffs lawyers retained by Morales in the tobacco case. He has brought a halt to the practice of hiring plaintiffs lawyers to represent the state in complicated cases unless they forgo their usual contingency-fee arrangement (a slice of the winnings) for an hourly wage—a policy that effectively keeps the state’s best courtroom lawyers from working for the public. He sent a letter to school districts on the subject of school prayer at football games (which Cornyn favors) that was mystifying in its ambiguity after a federal appellate court had ruled explicitly against it. He settled a water pollution suit against


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