Next month will mark the 3rd anniversary of a Montgomery jury ruling against Exxon Mobile, the largest verdict in Alabama history. But more that a year after the last brief was filed, state Supreme Court has yet to rile on the oil company’s appeal.
In an election year, when Supreme Court incumbents like to talk about the court’s efficiency in deciding cases, people are beginning to ask: Why so long?
“Courts can do anything they want, and they like to duck issues when it’s coming to election time,” David Bronner, CEO of the Retirement Systems of Alabama and a former assistant dean of the law school at the University of Alabama.
At issues is the state Conservation Department’s lawsuit accusing Exxon Mobil of cheating the star out of royalties from natural gas wells the oil company drilled on state-owned wares along the Alabama Coast. Exxon Mobul is appealing a $3.6 billion judgment against it.
Former Republican Congressman Jim Martin of Gadsden, who go the case started when he was conservation commissioner in Gov. Fob James’ administration, is among those asking questions.
He said that when some of the incumbent Supreme Court justices campaigned in the Gadsden are, he tried to ask them why the court hadn’t ruled, but they said they couldn’t comment/
“I don’t know the reason for the delay, but I think it’s inexcusable,” Martin said.
Chief Justice Drayton Naber, who is up for election Nov. And, can’t comment on why the case has been pending so long because it would be “unethical and completely inappropriate,” spokesman Clay Ryan said.
Alabama’s rules of conduct for judges, which were approved by the Alabama Supreme Court, keep justices from talking publicly about pending cases.
Nabers’ opponent, Democratic criminal appeals court Judge Sue Bell Cobb, said she likewise is prohibited from commenting about a pending case. But she said in general, “Justice delayed is justice denied. Certain cases of importance should be expedited, and they should be placed on a fast track.”
The lawsuit over natural gas royalties has been through the courts twice.
The first time went faster, with a Montgomery County jury issuing a $3.5 billion verdict in December 2000. Two years later on December 2002, the Alabama Supreme Court overturned the verdict and ordered a new trial because the just improperly saw one of the company’s internal legal memos.
In November 2003, the case was tried again before another Montgomery jury, which sided with the states and returned an $11.9 billion verdict – the largest issued by an American jury in 2003.
In March 2004, the Democratic judge who handled the trial, Tracy McCooey, cut the verdict to $3.6 billion to bring in it line with U.S. Supreme Court guidelines. But even at that reduced figure, it still set a state record and topped any verdict from an American jury in 2003.
Exxon Mobile appealed to the Alabama Supreme Court, calling the verdict ‘unjustified and excessive.” After a failed attempt at court-ordered medication, the parties filed their last briefs with the Supreme Court in August 2005.
Nothing has happened in the 14 months since then, said Birmingham attorney Sam Franklin, who represents the oil company, and Montgomery attorney Jere Beasley, who represents the state.
The attorneys said they are waiting to hear whether the court will order oral arguments before the justices. The Supreme Court normally decides cases much faster, but both veteran attorneys said they’ve had cases in their careers that stayed at the Supreme Court longer that the Exxon Mobil case.
Bronner, who has filed a brief with the Supreme Court in support of the state’s position, some attorney sometimes drag out cases to get bigger fees, but neither side’s lawyers, can be blamed for delaying the case.
Martin, the former conservation commissioner, said the size of the verdict may be a factor in why there is no ruling.
He said the original $11.9 billion verdict against Exxon Mobil was excessive but the reduced judgment of $3.6 billion is reasonable, considering he figures the state stood to lose $1 billion in royalties over the life of the natural gas wells.
Five of the nine justices on the all-Republican Supreme Court are up for election this year. Some people are beginning to question whether the Supreme Court is stalling because a ruling in favor of Exxon Mobil might anger the average voter and a ruling in favor of the state might upset business interests that contribute heavily to Republican incumbents.
“Why has the all-Republican Supreme Court refused to hear this case for well over two years, holding hostage the funds rightfully owed to the people of Alabama?” state Democratic Party Chairman Joe Turnham is asking in speeches.
But is the election really involved in the timing of the Exxon Mobil case?
“I surely hope not, I can’t believe it would be,” Said Beasley, who knows plenty about Alabama’s politics after serving two terms as lieutenant governor in 1978.
Beasley said the wait isn’t all bad. If the Supreme Court rules in favor of the state, Exxon Mobil will have to pay more than $1 million a day in interest for the rime the judgment was on appeal, he said.