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.