AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Texas Supreme Court Justice Nathan Hecht was named new chief of the state's highest civil court Tuesday, pleasing conservative leaders but troubling a watchdog group that has criticized the Republican over his record and alleged ethics violations.
Hecht, 64, is the longest-serving justice on the nine-member panel. He was first elected in 1988, a longevity that has carried Hecht through the court shifting with the Texas political landscape and becoming entirely stocked by Republicans.
Hecht replaces Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson, the state's first black justice, who announced this month he would step down in October.
The appointment was made by Gov. Rick Perry, who did not immediately name a replacement for Hecht's seat.
"I know Justice Hecht to be a man of the most upstanding character and integrity, with an uncompromising commitment to protecting the interests of the citizens of Texas," Perry said.
Hecht becomes the court's 27th chief justice while continuing to fight a $29,000 state ethics fine from 2008, stemming stems from his public support of former U.S. Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers.
Texas Watch, an Austin-based advocacy group that monitors the Texas Supreme Court and civil justice issues, met the selection of Hecht with disapproval. The group has filed ethics complaints against Hecht that have been dismissed and is critical of a judicial record that it claims favors insurance companies and corporate defendants.
Alex Winslow, executive director of Texas Watch, said Hecht lacks the reputation of having an independent streak like his predecessor Jefferson.
"Nathan Hecht has never shown a desire to be a moderating voice in any way," Winslow said. "This is a hard turn for the court."
Hecht was fined after the ethics commission determined campaign finance laws were broken. Hecht racked up a large legal bill fighting allegations that he abused his position in 2005 by openly supporting Miers, a longtime friend, and was given an estimated $168,000 discount on legal fees by a major law firm.
The ethics commission determined the discount amounted to a campaign contribution. Hecht has argued the discount was legal and proper, and a trial date over his appeal has not been set.
The ethics commission is represented by the office of Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott, who formerly served with Hecht on the court and is now running for governor. Abbott on Tuesday tweeted that Hecht was a "solid conservative pick."
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