No Comment — December 13, 2007, 1:24 pm

The Best Justice Money Can Buy

Alabama Governor Bob Riley has announced that he will not ask the Alabama Supreme Court to reconsider its shocking decision to throw out a $3.6 billion jury award that the state secured against oil giant Exxon Mobil. The judgment arose from a dispute over royalties owed to the state over natural gas wells drilled offshore in Mobile bay and along the Alabama shoreline. The decision was a completely partisan split, with eight Republican judges voting to throw out the award, and the court’s sole Democrat, Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb, issuing a blistering dissent.

Most Alabamians were stunned by the decision, which would have meant a dramatic revenue windfall to the state—an opportunity to pull itself up out of the national cellar in areas such as public education, for instance. But should they have been surprised?

Alabama is one of a handful of states in the nation that elects its judges. And judicial elections in Alabama have gotten astonishingly expensive. Essentially they involve a battle to the death between two special interests, each determined to exercise control over the courts. On one hand, it’s the trial lawyers. On the other, it’s the business interests represented in various associations and chambers of commerce. But these are not exactly evenly matched opponents. The business community is capable of, and does, outspend the trial lawyers by a fairly dramatic multiple.

One of my friends who specializes in raising campaign money for political candidates tells me that “most politicians reflect the interests of the constituents they represent.” After a pause for effect, he adds, “and they count every dollar they raise for their campaigns as another constituent.” A sad and lamentable fact of life for our democratic system. It’s become a system in which campaign dollars speak as powerfully as voters… or perhaps more powerfully. States that elect their judges are finding the same phenomenon across the board. The races are increasingly politicized and partisan (even when they’re “nonpartisan”), money pours into the state from outside, and viable candidates have to raise enormous sums to be taken seriously. The candidates all declare that the donations don’t affect their attitudes and decisions. And once on the bench, their votes reflect something quite different. It’s a national disgrace.

So whose money went into those judicial races in Alabama? Let’s start by remembering who put the Supreme Court elections in Alabama “on the map,” in national political terms. It was Karl Rove. In 1992, he masterminded a strategy to put a G.O.P. lock on the Alabama Supreme Court. And at his side was his close friend William (“Billy”) Canary, husband of U.S. Attorney Leura Canary, and the most important Republican electoral strategist in Alabama. He implemented the plan brilliantly and Joshua Green did a penetrating account of the race that made Rove’s reputation in political circles before he became a household name, in an article in The Atlantic. Key to it was raising money from business interests for the judicial races, and for the G.O.P. across the board. The plan put wind in the sails of the Alabama G.O.P., and helped the party consolidate its political hold on Alabama.

So who funded the G.O.P.’s vise-like grip on the Alabama Supreme Court? The answer is complex, but part of it is: Exxon Mobil did.

In the last six years, Republican candidates for the state’s highest court have taken more than $5.5 million in campaign contributions from Exxon Mobil lobbyists and lawyers, and groups allied with the company. That means that the eight judges who voted to throw out the state’s massive jury award against Exxon Mobil were actually placed on the court with Exxon Mobil’s money and support—though that support is almost all carefully funnelled in an indirect way, of course. Just think about it from a corporate perspective—an investment of $5.5 million to eliminate a $3.6 billion liability? The best investment those oil men ever made.

So where, exactly, did that $5.5 million come from? Looking over the Republicans’ campaign finance filings (including the Republican contender defeated by Chief Justice Cobb), here’s what we find:

• Tort-reform groups whose leadership include Exxon lobbyists, or who were funded indirectly by the company, made nearly $3 million in contributions to the GOP members of the Supreme Court.

• Seven Political Action Committees controlled by Exxon’s Alabama lobbyists, Fine Geddie & Associates, made $293,000 in direct campaign contributions to the Supreme Court justices who ruled in the company’s favor.

• Alabama lawyers who represent Exxon in the gas royalties suit gave thousands of dollars more to the justices who ruled in favor of Exxon in the case.

• The biggest corporate trade group in Alabama, Billy Canary’s Business Council of Alabama, also contributed at least $2.1 million to the GOP justices who ruled favorably to Exxon.

Here is a breakdown:

The Alabama Civil Justice Reform Committee PAC paid $1.8 million to the Supreme Court justices who threw out the Exxon damages. Exxon lobbyist Bob Geddie is a top member of the Board of Directors to the PACs parent group, the Alabama Civil Justice Reform Committee, a tax-exempt group that proclaims its charitable purpose as “monitoring litigation and legislation” and “intervening in litigation.” Billy Canary is the former head of the ACJRC.

The Lawsuit Reform PAC, whose chairman, Thomas Dart, is also Chair of the ACJRC, paid more than $1 million to Supreme Court justices during and in-between their campaigns for office.

The Business Council’s Progress PAC dumped $2.1 million into the campaign accounts of GOP justices since 2002 election cycle.

Oh… and I’m not counting the money that the same interests gave to Governor Riley. That would drive the numbers up considerably higher.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

From the April 2015 issue

Company Men

Torture, treachery, and the CIA

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

August 2016

Don the Realtor

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Atlas Aggregated

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Origins of Speech

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Four in Verse

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Sigh and a Salute

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Four in Prose

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post
Martin Amis on the rise of Trump, Tom Wolfe on the origins of speech, Art Spiegelman on Si Lewen, fiction by Diane Williams, and more

In Havana, the past year has been marked by a parade of bold-faced names from the north — John Kerry reopening the United States Embassy; Andrew Cuomo bringing a delegation of American business leaders; celebrities ranging from Joe Torre, traveling on behalf of Major League Baseball to oversee an exhibition game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team, to Jimmy Buffett, said to be considering opening one of his Margaritaville restaurants there. All this culminated with a three-day trip in March by Barack Obama, the first American president to visit Cuba since Calvin Coolidge in 1928. But to those who know the city well, perhaps nothing said as much about the transformation of political relations between the United States and Cuba that began in December 2014 as a concert in the Tribuna Antiimperialista.

Illustration by Darrel Rees
Article
Don the Realtor·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"If you have ever wondered what it’s like, being a young and avaricious teetotal German-American philistine on the make in Manhattan, then your curiosity will be quenched by The Art of the Deal."
Photograph (detail) © Polly Borland/Exclusive by Getty Images
Article
The Origins of Speech·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"To Chomsky...every child’s language organ could use the 'deep structure,' 'universal grammar,' and 'language acquisition device' he was born with to express what he had to say, no matter whether it came out of his mouth in English or Urdu or Nagamese."
Illustration (detail) by Darrel Rees. Source photograph © Miroslav Dakov/Alamy Live News
Article
A Sigh and a Salute·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Si told me that various paintings had spoken to him, but he wished they had been hung closer together 'so they could talk to each other.' This observation planted a seed that would come to fruition years later in his mature work."
Artwork (detail) by Si Lewen
Article
El Bloqueo·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Amid the festivities and the flood of celebrities, it would be easy for Americans to miss that the central plank of the long-standing cold war against Cuba — the economic embargo — remains very much alive and well."
Photograph (detail) by Rose Marie Cromwell

Ratio of the amount J. P. Morgan paid a man to fight in his place in the Civil War to what he spent on cigars in 1863:

1:1

The Food and Drug Administration asked restaurants to help Americans eat less.

Pope Francis announced that nuns could use social media, and a priest flew a hot-air balloon around the world.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Mississippi Drift

By

Matt was happy enough to sustain himself on the detritus of a world he saw as careening toward self-destruction, and equally happy to scam a government he despised. 'I’m glad everyone’s so wasteful,' he told me. 'It supports my lifestyle.'

Subscribe Today