A conservative legal group based in Washington, D.C., has filed a judicial ethics complaint against an Alabama judge who accepted large campaign contributions from attorneys pursuing a Vioxx wrongful death lawsuit.
The complaint filed by the Washington Legal Foundation against Clay County Circuit Judge John Rochester contends he failed to conduct himself in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary, which is a violation of Alabama’s judicial ethics rules.
In response, Rochester said attorneys for Vioxx’s manufacturer, Merck & Co., had not complained about the donations and had not asked him to step aside from the case.
“I would think it would be meritless,” Rochester told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.
Paul Kamenar, senior executive counsel of the Washington Legal Foundation, said Rochester had an obligation to remove himself from the Vioxx case even if none of the parties complained.
The foundation’s complaint involves the Beasley Allen law firm’s representation of Cheryl Rogers, an Alabama woman who filed a wrongful death suit against Merck on behalf of her husband, claiming the Vioxx pills marketed by the New Jersey-based drugmaker led to his death.
Her suit had been scheduled to be the first Vioxx case to go on trial in the United States, but Rochester delayed it last month at the request of a federal judge handling many suits over Vioxx.
In April, The Associated Press reported that the Beasley Allen law firm contributed $60,000 to Rochester’s unsuccessful campaign for the Alabama Supreme Court last year by funneling it through political action committees. That prevented the law firm’s name from showing up on Rochester’s campaign finance reports.
The Washington Legal Foundation, which filed the complaint, is a nonprofit group that says it “fights activist lawyers, regulators, and intrusive government agencies.” It gets donations from individuals, other foundations and businesses. Kamenar said he is not involved with fundraising and could not immediately say whether Merck is a contributor.
The foundation’s complaint says Alabama’s Canons of Judicial Ethics require judges to avoid situations where their impartiality might be questioned.
“WLF submits Judge Rochester’s impartiality in the Merck case might be reasonably questioned because of the amount and timing of campaign contributions from Beasley Allen,” the complaint said.
The contributions represented 11 percent of Rochester’s total contributions and 22 percent of the contributions he received in the crucial final month of the campaign, Kamenar said.
Margaret Childers, director of the Judicial Inquiry Commission, said the state constitution bars her from commenting.
The commission reviews complaints against Alabama judges, much like a grand jury, and decides whether to forward them to the Alabama Court of the Judiciary. If the court decides a judge acted improperly, it can take actions ranging from a reprimand to removal from office.
Rocheters said the Beasley Allen firm joined the lawsuit after it was filed by another firm. He said he was not aware of the Beasley Allen firm’s involvement in the Vioxx case until after his 2004 Supreme Court race, which he lost.
He said he also received campaign support from lawyers on the other side of the Vioxx case, but he was not immediately sure how much.
Montgomery lawyer Jere Beasley, founder of the Beasley Allen firm, described Rochester as “a tough, fair judge.”
“Had he been trying to help us, he would not have continued the case,” Beasley said.
The attorney said his law firm made its donations through PACs because that is the way many candidates like to get contributions. He said many businesses also use PACs to contribute to candidates for the Alabama Supreme Court.