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.

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Ashley arrived for her prenatal appointment at Black Hills Obstetrics and Gynecology, in Rapid City, South Dakota, wearing a black zip-up hoodie and Converse sneakers.1 To explain her absence from work that morning — a Tuesday in April 2015 — she had told a co-worker that she was having “female issues.” She was twenty-five years old and eight weeks pregnant. She had been separated from her husband, with whom she had a five-year-old son, for the better part of a year. The guy who’d gotten her pregnant was someone she’d met at the gym, and he’d made it abundantly clear that he wanted nothing more to do with her. Ashley found herself hoping that the doctor would discover some kind of fetal defect, so that her decision would be easier. She glanced across the waiting room at a television playing a birth-control ad and laughed darkly. “Jesus, Lord, it would be so nice if someone just pushed me down a flight of stairs.”

In the exam room, she perched on the table with her feet crossed at the ankles, her blond hair brushing the back of her pink hospital gown. “I don’t know what’s available for me here,” she told her doctor, Katherine Degen, who sat facing her on a stool. “I figured nothing.”

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The baby was due in November, when Ashley, who was a nurse, hoped to be enrolled in a graduate program to become a nurse practitioner. Getting pregnant as a teenager had forced her to put that dream on hold, but she had thought that she was finally ready; she had even submitted her application shortly before the March 15 deadline. For the first time in her adult life, Ashley felt as if her plans were coming together. Then she missed her period.

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Ashley arrived for her prenatal appointment at Black Hills Obstetrics and Gynecology, in Rapid City, South Dakota, wearing a black zip-up hoodie and Converse sneakers.1 To explain her absence from work that morning — a Tuesday in April 2015 — she had told a co-worker that she was having “female issues.” She was twenty-five years old and eight weeks pregnant. She had been separated from her husband, with whom she had a five-year-old son, for the better part of a year. The guy who’d gotten her pregnant was someone she’d met at the gym, and he’d made it abundantly clear that he wanted nothing more to do with her. Ashley found herself hoping that the doctor would discover some kind of fetal defect, so that her decision would be easier. She glanced across the waiting room at a television playing a birth-control ad and laughed darkly. “Jesus, Lord, it would be so nice if someone just pushed me down a flight of stairs.”

In the exam room, she perched on the table with her feet crossed at the ankles, her blond hair brushing the back of her pink hospital gown. “I don’t know what’s available for me here,” she told her doctor, Katherine Degen, who sat facing her on a stool. “I figured nothing.”

 Some names and identifying details have been changed. 

“Big, fat zero, unfortunately,” Degen said, making a 0 with her fingers. The last doctor who provided abortions in Rapid City retired in 1986, three years before Ashley was born.

The baby was due in November, when Ashley, who was a nurse, hoped to be enrolled in a graduate program to become a nurse practitioner. Getting pregnant as a teenager had forced her to put that dream on hold, but she had thought that she was finally ready; she had even submitted her application shortly before the March 15 deadline. For the first time in her adult life, Ashley felt as if her plans were coming together. Then she missed her period.

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Photograph (detail) by Balazs Gardi
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