Alabama has developed a reputation for the nation’s most expensive Supreme Court races during a 12 year battle that has changed the court from all Democratic to overwhelmingly Republican.
Now a decision by the court’s republican justices to throw out nearly all of a record $3.6 Billion verdict against Exxon Mobil has underlined the fiercely partisan nature of the judicial system in Alabama.
“Justice, as we’ve seen, is partisan,” University of Alabama political scientist William Stewart, a longtime observer of Alabama politics, said Tuesday.
Stewart said it’s noticeable that some Democratic leaders have started advocating nonpartisan Supreme Court races when the number of Democrats on the Supreme Court was shrinking, but that talk subsided when they saw the Exxon Mobil decision as a way to win back Supreme Court seats.
With the next Supreme Court election one year away, Democratic leaders immediately pointed the verdict in a dispute over natural gas royalties as a compelling motivation for political change.
“It is time to replace the corporate board of Republican justices’ on the Supreme Court with Democratic jurist that understand Alabama’s highest court is not a tool to protect corporate interests,” said Joe Turnham, chairman of the Alabama Democratic Party.
In the view of Republicans, Alabama is at risk of returning to the days of huge verdicts, when the state was known nationally as a “judicial hellhole.”
“Democratic long for the day when plaintiff trial lawyers ruled the Supreme Court and jackpot justice made Alabama a national joke,” said Mike Hubbard, chairman of the Alabama Republican Party.
Alabama is one of the eight states that elect their Supreme Court justices in partisan elections. The campaigns are as expensive and as tough as governers races are in other states, with past races featuring divorce records and ads comparing a candidate to a skunk.
In the order overturning the $3.6 billion verdict, the largest ever in Alabama, the court’s eight Republican justices said the state failed to prove the oil company fraudulently underpaid natural gas royalties and cut the verdict to $52 million.
The court’s lone Democratic dissented, accusing the Republican majority of approving, “the appropriation of this state’s recourses by deceit.”
By 2003, with Republicans dominating the high court, Alabama fell off the American Tort Reform Association’s annual list of “judicial hellhole” and state Republicans began to promote a business friendly environment.
Association spokesman Darren McKinney said Alabama got a Supreme Court “that tends to tamp down the trial lawyers’ shenanigans.”
He said the Exxon Mobil verdict- 3.5 Billion in punitive damages and $103 million in compensatory damages-“was absurd on its face” because the ratio of punitive to compensatory damages went far beyond what the courts normally allowed.
Prominent plaintiff lawyer Jere Beasley, a major Democratic contributor brought in by the Republican governor to represent the state in the Exxon Mobil suit, said Tuesday he has been surprised by the strong public reaction to the Supreme Court’s decision.
“It’s totally anti-Exxon,” Beasley said.
The reaction was very strong from the foreman of the jury that ruled against Exxon Mobil. Montgomery elementary school teacher Joey King said he was “Totally shocked” by the Supreme Court’s ruling and believes businesses’ campaign contributions to justice had an impact.
“Money speaks to Republicans. That’s why I’m a Democrat,” he said Monday.
The big budget battle between plaintiff lawyers and business interest for influence on Alabama’s highest court has resulted in candidates raising $54 million since 1993.
The Justice at Stake Campaign, a Washington based group that has been tracking spending in judicial races since 1993, said Alabama is No. 1 in the nation through the 2006 election. Texas is second at $30 million.
The Exxon Mobil case was pending at the Supreme Court during last year’s election, and it became a prominent issue. Democratic Sue Bell Cobb defeated Republican Chief Justice Drayton Nabors after running ads accusing him of taking large contributions from political action committees run by Exxon Mobil’s Alabama lobbyist.
Democratic Supreme Court candidate Deborah Bell Paseur kicked off her campaign Tuesday standing in front of a supporter holding an “8-1″ sign criticizing the Supreme Court’s Exxon Mobil decision.
Jesse Rutledge, spokesperson for Justice at Stake, said the Exxon Mobil case will motivate business groups and plaintiff lawyers to gear up for the one Supreme Court seat on next year’s ballot, especially because the Republican incumbent is retiring.
“You are looking at what is likely to be another negative vitriolic, expensive court campaign. This is likely to pour oil on the fire. No pun intended,” he said.