MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) – A conservative legal group based in Washington, D.C., has filed a judicial ethics complaint against an Alabama judge handling a Vioxx wrongful death case who accepted large campaign contributions from attorneys pursuing the suit.
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.