The accident that changed Greg Abbott’s life was so improbable as to be almost statistically immeasurable. A healthy 27 year-old, he was jogging through the Houston community of River Oaks in 1984 when a large limb broke from a tree and fell on his back. Abbott, who spent months in rehabilitation, was made paraplegic.
Financially, however, his future was also made secure as the result of a lawsuit that the future Texas attorney general told the Dallas Morning News would pay him, ultimately, $9 million tax-free dollars. Abbott gets monthly and annual payouts that have thus far totaled $6 million dollars after he won a suit against the homeowner and the tree care company.
The manner in which the accident has, arguably, manifested itself in Abbott’s public and political life is what makes him such a confounding public figure. People often expect victims of tragedies to have heightened sympathies and sensitivities to the disadvantaged, but Abbott’s political ideology is a hard kind of conservatism and exhibits almost no flexibility. Compromise is not a part of his dogma, and his political positions appear to be more about anger than logic or rational thought.
It’s reasonable to ask if Greg Abbott is just mad.
There is more than enough evidence to be persuasive that Abbott either by design or subconsciously is just getting even with a world that he thinks has, in his life, been unjust. The first, and most egregious example of his hypocrisy is connected to the public’s right to litigate cases against companies that may have caused them harm. From the time he was appointed to the Texas Supreme Court almost two decades ago, Abbott has promoted changes in tort laws to limit damages plaintiffs might win in lawsuits.
He possibly also lacks the ability to understand irony.
Those laws were modified to have a limit of $750,000 for any punishment awarded by the court for bad faith or gross negligence. Abbott, whose office argues his perspective for him on this matter, says the law still empowers individuals to make claims for lost wages and other economic and non-economic damages like pain and suffering. Abbott was awarded his $9 million, according to his office, to cover the hospital, doctors, therapy, and pharmaceutical bills, and a reduced capability for making a living income. His campaign, however, has never released copies of the lawsuit so the pleadings and what he asked the court to award in damages are not presently known.
In terms of medical malpractice suits, Abbott, Gov. Rick Perry, and the GOP have successfully closed the courthouse door to patients injured by their physicians. Punitive damages are limited to $250,000 and $750,000 for pain and suffering. Many cases no longer make it to the court dockets because they are more expensive to litigate than the average award a lawyer might win, which is now $199,000 approximately ten years after the law was changed. The argument for tort reform in medical malpractice was that it would reduce the expenses of health care in Texas and increase physician access. A study conducted by the University of Texas indicated, instead, that the costs of Medicare have significantly increased.
There seems, also, to be a bit of self-loathing in Abbott, however, when he fights the Americans with Disabilities Act. The 1990 federal law requires ramps, wide doors, and grab bars needed to help the disabled access buildings and various public facilities. In fact, the ADA has long made it possible for Greg Abbott to get inside the Texas state government buildings where he works. This hasn’t stopped his office from vehemently defending the state against disabled individuals demanding assistance under the ADA.
Abbott has argued sovereign immunity, which is a constitutional protection that keeps a state from being sued unless it grants permission. He consistently wins when fighting ADA claimants, which stops disabled people from getting state assistance under the federal law. In one case the AG is fighting, the plaintiff, who is legally blind, is seeking little more than reflective tape on stair railings at her place of work and voice recognition software so she can type. The AG says no and that disabled people do not have the right to sue the state for discrimination based upon ADA laws.
Abbott can argue that not fighting such suits will allow for a precedent but his rationale seems specious and without sufficient merit. He is willing to harm one person’s daily, handicapped life, and avoid spending a few hundred state dollars to make a point of legal precedence. What if Greg Abbott had been forced to sue for ramps on the Texas Supreme Court building? If he were gay, perhaps we could expect Abbott to be like former GOP party chair Ken Mehlman, and fight to stop gay marriage.
Which, of course, Greg Abbott opposes.
Similar to his positions on tort reform and the ADA, there is no basis in logic for Greg Abbott’s opposition to gay marriage in Texas. The state has a constitutional ban on same sex marriage but a federal court has ruled it a violation federal constitutional protections. Instead of abiding by the federal court’s decision and joining 17 other states that now have legalized marriage, Abbott is determined to make a state rights argument in his appeals pleadings.
The federal suit to have the Texas anti-gay marriage amendment overturned was filed by a Vanderbilt Law School classmate of Abbott’s. Mark Phariss and his long time partner Victor Holmes of Plano are plaintiffs in the case along with another couple from Austin. Abbott’s comments on the court case indicate that he thinks reasonable people can disagree over the law, but he has not made more than a legal argument of why gays ought to be denied marriage rights. The moral outrage he represents by defending the state’s ban is nothing more than a misinterpretation of the Bible and pandering to the ultra-conservative right that controls the Texas GOP.
Irrespective of any constitutional status, which will, eventually, be overturned by federal statute or a Supreme Court ruling, Abbott is fighting against the tidal surge of history. He is wasting more state time and resources to argue a case that will render only a temporary win. Why not give all people basic rights and let them be to love who they will?
Isn’t that a fundamental description of conservatism?
Abbott has broad discretionary authority as attorney general and can drop the federal appeal on the gay marriage ban, which is also what he should do on the state’s defense in the lawsuit of public education funding. Instead, he fights, and fights without reason. The suit was originally filed by school districts that represent up to two thirds of the students in the state of Texas after legislators cut $5.4 billion from public education funding in 2011. A state district court judge ruled for those districts by saying that Texas’ funding plan was unconstitutional and lacked fairness, and was also inadequate. The case was re-opened when lawmakers restored about two thirds of the cuts in 2013, and Greg Abbott continues to resist any ruling that would lead to the court ordering the state to live up to its constitutional mandate to provide sufficient and equitable funding for public schools.
Why not settle the case? Work with the schools and their representatives and legislators to arrive at a plan that provides a quality education for the school children of Texas? Everything from the lawsuits against the state for running a lousy prison system to redistricting to operating a failed youth corrections system have all been settled by the attorneys general that served prior to Greg Abbott. It’s easy to argue that he is building a reputation as a hard guy on the backs of disadvantaged Texas school children.
He’s also wasting money on frivolous lawsuits, which is what Abbott insisted he was trying to stop by pushing tort reform. The Texas AG has bragged that he has a simple job that involves getting up in the morning, going to the office, and suing President Obama. In fact, he’s done that 30 times, according to the Associated Press, and has consumed 14,113 hours of time by staff and state lawyers at a cost to taxpayers of $2.58 million dollars. These are not significant cultural touchstones Abbott is trying to change with his interpretations of the law since in most of the cases Texas is the leading, or only plaintiff.
Abbott, undoubtedly, believes he is doing the work of the state of Texas and representing the wishes of the people by fighting gay marriage, abortion rights, voter identification regulations, legislative districts that discriminate against minorities, gun control, and federal laws that make Texas function like much of the rest of the nation. But he’s not. Greg Abbott is causing unnecessary pain for innocent people that are trying to live simple lives and he does it while claiming he stands on principle and is protecting the law.
Legal strategies ought to involve more than simply a clinical evaluation of the law. They deserve introspection and evaluation for societal impact. Greg Abbott’s entire tenure as attorney general has been based upon political posturing; not the law and the humanity the law is supposed to serve. He just seems angry.
And he’s taking it out on Texas.