Trial Lawyer Money Flows Once Again

Just last week our state’s judicial candidates filed campaign finance reports for the November general election. Initial news reports declared that the Republican candidates received the majority of their funds from business while the Democrats had gotten the lion share of their contributions from the Alabama Democratic Party. But what about those perennial big dollar donors, the trial lawyers? Has all this talk that the tort reform battle is over sent the trial lawyers and their “jackpot justice” millions into retirement?

A closer analysis reveals the trial lawyers remain very much in the business of big time political contributions. According to reports filed with the Secretary of State’s office, nine trial lawyer firms have contributed nearly $2 million dollars to date in this election cycle. Nearly half of that money went to seven judicial candidates either directly or through the Alabama Democratic Party, and the rest remains in the Democrat Party’s war chest to be funnelled to those same candidates in the weeks leading up to election day.

As Yogi Berra once said, “It’s déjà vu all over again.” Just two years ago, six plaintiff trial lawyer firms – dubbed the “Trial Lawyer Six Pack” – combined to contribute nearly $4 million to key civil justice candidates either directly or through the Alabama Democratic Party. Now in 2000, the trial lawyers are poised to meet or exceed that figure through the same contribution scheme – proof once again that an elite group of trial lawyers are trying to influence and exploit our legal system.

Who are the members of this year’s “Trial Lawyer Nine Pack” and how much did they give to earn this dubious distinction? The Beasley, Allen firm of Montgomery gave a whopping $387,200; Hare, Wynn, Newell and Newton of Birmingham contributed $320,500; Cunningham, Bounds of Mobile gave $312,000; Pittman, Hooks, Dutton & Hollis in Birmingham – $198,000; Emond & Vines of Birmingham – $165,000; Marsh, Rickard & Bryan of Birmingham – $125,000; the Morris, Haynes & Hornsby firm of Alexander City contributed $102,000; Langston, Frazer, Sweet & Freese of Birmingham – $100,000; and Wilkes & McHugh of Tampa gave $100,000.

This impressive flood of money, along with over $150,000 from other trial lawyer firms and trial lawyer PACs, was funnelled to seven trial lawyer-endorsed candidates through the Alabama Democratic Party. Specifically, the Trial Lawyer Nine Pack directly contributed $1,811,700 to the State Democratic Executive Committee in addition to $128,400 from other trial lawyers and another $31,000 from two trial lawyer PACs: PROPAC and TrialPAC. All total, in the 2000 election cycle trial lawyers have given $1,971,100 to the Alabama Democratic Party – 65% of all the party’s contributions.

The Alabama Democratic Party passed this flood of money on to seven judicial candidates – four Supreme Court and three Court of Civil Appeals – all supported by the trial lawyers. Each of these candidates, if elected, will have an enormous impact on Alabama’s civil justice system.

The Democratic Party “contributions” for the four Supreme Court candidates breaks down as follows: Judge Sharon Yates, candidate for Chief Justice received $232,132; Justice Ralph Cook, candidate for Alabama Supreme Court, received $59,000; Justice John England, candidate for Alabama Supreme Court, received $175,441; Judge Joel Laird, candidate for Alabama Supreme Court, received $299,770 (these figures include in-kind contributions and, in Laird’s case, also include a substantial loan). When coupled with direct trial lawyer contributions to their campaigns apart from those dollars sent through the Democratic Party, trial lawyers comprise 69 percent of Yates’ contributions, 55 percent of England’s, 55 percent of Cook’s, and a startling 76 percent of Laird’s funds.

As for the three Court of Civil Appeals candidates: Judge Roger Monroe, candidate for Court of Civil Appeals, received $64,550 through the Alabama Democratic Party; Henry Steagall, Jr., candidate for Court of Civil Appeals, received $25,000; and Judge Gene Reese, candidate for Court of Civil Appeals, received $56,700. Added to trial lawyer contributions that came directly to the candidates instead of through the party, trial lawyers account for 57 percent of Monroe’s money, 27 percent of Steagall’s, and 39 percent of Reese’s.

With an additional $1 million on standby at the Democratic Party, and an additional $375,000 in the coffers of TrialPAC, you can be sure over the next several weeks the trial lawyer money – and these percentages – will continue to rise.

This tangled web of trial lawyer money is a clear indication that the trial lawyers are up to their old tricks. In the 1980s and early 1990s the trial lawyers undertook similar efforts to exploit our legal system. You may remember that the Alabama legislature passed a comprehensive package of tort reform bills in 1987 to end lawsuit abuse in our state, only to have a trial lawyer-backed majority of the Alabama Supreme Court throw out those bills as unconstitutional. Not only did the liberal activist Court usurp legislative power, but it also presided over an era of “jackpot justice,” affirming huge damage awards that lined the pockets of the trial lawyers.

Since that time, however, conservatives have regained a majority on the Alabama Supreme Court, and in 1999 three tort reform bills were passed by the Legislature. But this return to fairness and reason could be short-lived. The 2000 elections will determine the future of tort reform and the philosophy of our Court for years to come because a majority (5 of the 9 seats) on the Alabama Supreme Court is up for election – including the chief justice.

If the Trial Lawyer Nine Pack succeeds and the liberal activists regain their control of our Court, you can bet history will repeat itself and the 1999 tort reform bills will be tossed out – just like the 1987 package. But an even greater danger is that this trial lawyer influence over the Court will take us back to the “jackpot justice” era that gained our state a national reputation as “tort hell,” and made millions of dollars for an elite group like the Trial Lawyer Nine Pack.

As Election Day 2000 draws near and the future or our legal system is on the line, the people of Alabama have an enormous decision to make. That decision is clear: the citizens of this great state can give back our legal system to decent, honest Alabamians with real grievances, or they can return us to the days that were “jackpot justice” for trial lawyers, and “tort hell” for everyone else.