The Texas Supreme Court issued two opinions and accepted one new case for oral argument with today’s orders list.

Today’s list was Justice O’Neill’s last on the Court. Her last day as a Justice will be Sunday; Debra Lehrmann has been appointed by Governor Perry to replace her and will be sworn in on Monday morning. Appropriately, today’s only signed majority opinion is by Justice O’Neill.

Can a child under 14 commit the offense of prostitution?

In re B.W., No. 08-1044 (docket and briefs)

I wrote about this case when it was argued in January. The title of my post: “On the docket: Can a child too young to consent to sex have the requisite intent to commit prostitution?”.

By a 6-3 vote, the Texas Supreme Court holds that, no, the statute defining the crime of prostitution cannot be applied to juveniles under 14 years of age.

The split came down to first principles of statutory construction. Writing for the majority, Justice O’Neill looked first to the Legislature’s intent, placing emphasis on the overall design of the statute and avoiding unreasonable results:

It is difficult to reconcile the Legislature’s recognition of the special vulnerability of children, and its passage of laws for their protection, with an intent to find that children under fourteen understand the nature and consequences of their conduct when they agree to commit a sex act for money, or to consider children quasi-criminal offenders guilty of an act that necessarily involves their own sexual exploitation. In the context of these laws, and given the blanket adoption of the Penal Code into the Family Code, it is far more likely that the Legislature intended to punish those who sexually exploit children rather than subject child victims under the age of fourteen to prosecution.

Writing for the dissent, Justice Wainwright placed all emphasis on the text of the statute, explaining that the Legislature chose its policy with its words.

The language of the prostitution statute includes thirteen-year-olds, and the Juvenile Justice Code makes them subject to juvenile delinquency proceedings for committing that offense; and neither the Court nor B.W. point to any language in the Juvenile Justice or Penal Codes that changes the prostitution statute to mean something other than what it says. . . .

The Legislature easily could have created the exception that the Court proclaims today. It expressly excluded “traffic offense[s]” from the definition of delinquent conduct. TEX. FAM. CODE §51.03(a)(1). All it needed to do was add a few words to section 51.03(a)(1) to compel the result the Court desires, but the Legislature did not exclude “prostitution” from the list of offenses constituting delinquent conduct. Alternatively, the Legislature could have limited application of the prostitution statute to persons fourteen and older, rather than any “person.” Tex. Penal Code §43.02(a). Yet, it opted not to do so.

Justice O’Neill was joined by Chief Justice Jefferson, Justice Hecht, Justice Medina, Justice Green, and Justice Guzman.

Justice Wainwright was joined in dissent by Johnson and Justice Willett.

No evidence of causation between a halogen lamp and a (particular) fire

Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Charles T. Merrell, Sr. and Jane Ceverny, No. 09-0224 (per curiam) (docket and briefs)

In a per curiam opinion, the Court concluded that a plaintiffs’ expert witness had not offered legally sufficient evidence that a halogen lamp caused a particular fire that killed two people. The Court noted that Wal-Mart’s expert had testified that the more likely cause was “careless disposal of smoking materials” also found at the scene.

In this case, the experts were dueling at the summary-judgment stage, so the question was whether the plaintiff had enough evidence to proceed to trial. The district court said no, the court of appeals said yes, and today the Texas Supreme Court says no.

Justice Green did not sit on this case.

Accepted for Argument: What showing is required before a plaintiff can secure net-worth discovery from a defendant?

In re Mark A. Jacobs, M.D., Debra C. Gunn, M.D. and Obstetrical and Gynecological Associates, P.A., No. 09-0942 (docket and briefs)

As framed in the mandamus petition (available as a rather portly PDF file here), the issue is what pleading or initial proof is required before a plaintiff can get discovery of a defendant’s net worth.

In most contexts, the only relevance of net worth would be to an eventual punitive damages calculation. The relators’ theory is that — with the greater restrictions placed on punitive damages over the years — the corresponding discovery should also be reined in to prevent abuse.

Small correction to an opinion on rehearing

Leila Regenia Brown Hidalgo v. Alvin Steve Hidalgo, No. 09-0415 (docket and briefs)

As noted in Osler’s email today, the Court’s corrected opinion:

Changes sentence on page 2 to read “This order effectively granted Leila a new trial.” from “The parties appear to agree this order effectively granted Leila a new trial.”

Alvin had filed a motion for rehearing that pointed this issue out to the Court and asked the Court to “issue a new opinion correctly reflecting that Alvin disputes that [this order] granted Leila a new trial.” He might have wanted the Court to leave that question open. Instead, the Court made clear with today’s correction that it was resolved against him.