Pro bono for me, but not for thee

In my post about Justice Hecht’s legal travails, I didn’t mention something that seemed important, but not quite relevant. I’d recently read an article in the Houston Chronicle about the mayor of Houston enlisting the aid of a large Houston law firm to represent the city, pro bono, against a challenge to the recently passed smoking ban. There are obvious distinctions between the two situations. The justice is an individual judge, who will personally decide future cases potentially involving the same firms who helped defend him. Also, I don’t think it unreasonable for judicial ethics to hold a higher standard than those who hold elected office (although in Texas, state judges are elected officials).

But a recent post at blogHouston highlighted the mayor’s extensive use of pro bono representation for the city during his tenure.

• Smoking ban: Kathy Patrick of Gibbs & Bruns is defending the revised ordinance, which bans smoking in most public places starting next month, from a recent federal court challenge.

• Trash: Jim Moriarty of Moriarty & Associates got a one-time city contractor, Republic Waste Services, to pay for an audit and $2.5 million settlement in 2006 after allegations that some of its employees were overbilling the city.

• Revenue cap: Scott Atlas of Weil, Gotshal & Manges has defended a lawsuit over a ballot measure, passed by voters in 2004, that capped city revenues. The case is on appeal.

• Environment: David Berg of Berg & Androphy negotiated a deal with Texas Petrochemicals. The company agreed to reduce carcinogenic emissions and upgrade its facilities.

• Coal plants: Stephen Susman of Susman Godfrey prepared an administrative challenge on behalf of Houston and a coalition of other Texas cities that opposed a plan to build numerous new coal-fired power plants.

• Nuisance nightclubs: Allan Van Fleet of Greenberg Traurig represented the city in a lawsuit seeking to close down three clubs on Richmond near South Gessner that city officials said were magnets for crime.

• Illegal signs: Lance Lubell of Heard, Robins, Cloud & Lubell filed a lawsuit against a sign company that installed billboards in violation of a city ordinance.

Mayor White is a city official, soon to leave office because of term-limits, who undoubtedly has ambitions on higher state and possibly federal positions. I wonder if Texas Watch has ever considered investigating his actions and the possible influence seeking that may be occurring on the part of the law firms involved in representing the city.

Here’s a link to a blog post and article on the subject from the Chronicle’s Matt Stiles.

Often reserved for the indigent or condemned, pro bono work is a common ethic in the legal trade. But it’s not typically associated with the city, which has a nearly $1.9 billion operating budget and a legal department of roughly 80 lawyers.

. . .

City Attorney Arturo Michel estimates conservatively that the city has saved at least $1.3 million by getting some of those outsiders to donate their time.


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