Results matching “lead paint”

California's Prop 65: A vehicle for large attorney's fees - PointOfLaw Forum

Jarrett Dieterle
Legal Intern, Manhattan Institute's Center for Legal Policy

For several years, Manhattan Institute's Trial Lawyers, Inc. series has chronicled the vast profits accumulated by the plaintiff's bar. Another example of outsized attorney profit comes in the form of California's Proposition 65, which is meant to protect Californians against exposure to hazardous toxins. Passed by voter initiative in 1986, the law holds that no person in the course of business can knowingly expose others to toxins that are carcinogenic or can lead to birth defects; to be in compliance, companies must post notices and signs where exposure to such toxins is possible.

One of the enforcement mechanisms for Prop 65 is private actions, which can be brought if they are "in the public interest." In practice, this means that plaintiff attorneys can identify proscribed toxins in such seemingly-innocuous things as everyday house-cleaning products or vehicles parked in a parking lot and then charge businesses with knowingly exposing people to these agents. Companies, seeking to avoid costly litigation, are often quick to strike a settlement deal. Furthermore, the statute shifts the burden on the defendants to prove that they did not expose the plaintiffs to dangerous amounts of the proscribed toxins, further incentivizing settlements over a trial. The end result is large attorney's fees for the plaintiff's counsel, sometimes ranging as high as millions of dollars. From 2007-2011, attorney's fees made up some 67% of the money from Prop 65 settlements.

In the 2006 case Consumer Defense Group v. Rental Housing Industry Members, 137 Cal. App. 4th 1185, the California Court of Appeals described the ease with which Prop 65 claims can be brought:

The point is ... bringing Proposition 65 litigation is so absurdly easy that the sorts of attorney fees on which the parties settled here are objectively unconscionable. More than half a million dollars for walking into a group of apartments (and there is evidence that some of that might have been falsified!) looking for signs (and--just to give the exercise a little verisimilitude, also looking for pools and spas) and then serving a boilerplate, form notice based on such ubiquitous things as paint and parking deserves only the most minimal compensation.

The California Attorneys General office, tasked with monitoring private actions brought under Prop 65, is often so overwhelmed with the many notices of alleged Prop 65 violations that it is unable to weed out dubious cases brought by private attorneys merely seeking to line their pockets.

Although Prop 65 has received more scrutiny in recent years, attorneys are still profiting from the statute. In 2011 - the most recent year from which data is available - attorney's fees comprised over 70% of the total amount of Prop 65 settlements. Prop 65 allows dubious claims to be brought against businesses in order to obtain quick settlements featuring large attorney fees - all in the name of protecting Californians from dangerous substances.

Politics behind the STOCK Act - PointOfLaw Columns

Various members of the media and self-proclaimed ethics "watchdogs" have attacked Majority Leader Eric Cantor and the House Republican caucus this past week for passing -- by an overwhelming 417-2 vote -- a version of the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge, or "STOCK," Act.

The legislation is intended to apply federal prohibitions against insider trading to government officials, but a story in Politico ran with a typical headline: "Cantor under fire for STOCK Act tweaks," referring to provisions in the House legislation that departed from the earlier version of the bill passed by the Senate.

Just what were these "tweaks"?

In some respects, the House version of the STOCK Act strengthened rather than weakened limitations on profiteering off of government secrets, relative to the Senate bill.

It's hard to make any objection to extending insider-trading rules to the executive branch and to initial public offerings of securities, apart from the fact that the former would limit Democrats currently in control of the White House and the latter might embarrass former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has profited from IPOs of businesses directly affected by House legislation.

But it's similarly difficult to make a strong principled objection to the House bill's two most controversial dilutions of the Senate's STOCK bill.

To begin with, unlike the Senate bill, the House version eliminates sweeping registration requirements for private parties outside the government. The Senate STOCK Act would require registration as a lobbyist for anyone who might be characterized as trading in "public intelligence" -- i.e., facilitating investment-related guesses about the future shape of government policy based at least in part on conversations with government officials.

Such registration requirements clearly affect First Amendment rights to speak and petition the government. Moreover, as legal ethics scholar Richard Painter has suggested, it's perverse to target government officials' leaks of inside information by "requiring people to register before they gather information about their government," rather than by developing "stricter rules for government employees who selectively disclose government information to persons outside the government."

The second way in which the House version of the STOCK Act modifies the Senate bill is by eliminating the latter's provision that would target "undisclosed self-dealing by public officials."

Twice in the last 14 years, the Supreme Court has unanimously rejected prior versions of this rule, largely because the statutory provisions involved were so broad and vague that no one could precisely tell what conduct was actually prohibited.

Unfortunately, the Senate's proposed law would continue to offer little clarity as to what conduct would constitute "self-dealing." It's hard to know exactly what legislation considered by Congress would not affect the interests of, for instance, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., who directly and through his wife owns pieces of the Forbes and Heinz family trusts.

Moreover, the Senate bill's self-dealing restriction would reach not only federal officials, but also public servants across state and local governments. The Senate bill would thus impose a new federal mandate, uncertain in scope, which in many cases would depart from states' own disclosure requirements. It's hard to see why the federal government should be the chief ethics enforcer for state governments.

Just as insider trading is a misappropriation of corporate assets -- such that employees profiting off inside knowledge are stealing from the company -- so is government employees' profiting off their inside knowledge a violation of the public trust.

But the fact that we should want our public officials to be bound by the same insider trading laws that govern those in the private sector hardly means that we should support any and all pieces of legislation that would achieve that effect.

The House version of the STOCK Act is an improvement on the Senate version, and its proponents should be lauded, not criticized.

Since it first opened its doors in July, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has been unable to exercise its full authority as promulgated under Dodd-Frank. Without a confirmed director, the CFPB cannot extend its oversight to non-bank consumer lenders, arguably the most essential to its intended role.

The White House's greatest obstacle has been trying to convince a block of 44 Senate Republicans who have written a letter pledging to filibuster the confirmation of Obama's nominee, former Ohio Attorney General, Richard Cordray. Despite Cordray's alarming record as Ohio's AG, more specifically his contracts with private attorneys on a contingency-fee basis to handle the state's lawsuits, Senate Republicans refuse to confirm Cordray because of concerns about the CFPB's leadership structure, authority and funding.

In response, the Obama administration has decided to take its message to the people via media, public appearances and an information campaign targeting seven states in particular: Alaska, Indiana, Iowa, Maine, Nevada, Tennessee and Utah. The goal is to lobby the Senators deemed most likely to change their minds by encouraging public pressure from constituents.

Simultaneously, state AGs and other officials have already joined the effort to gain the 60 votes necessary for a vote that may come as early as Thursday. Even Republican Attorney General Mark Shurtleff of Utah has come forward to support Cordray in this effort.

Coincidentally, both Democrat Cordray and Republican Shurtleff are among the eight "leaders" of state AGs recognized for their unsavory alliances with trial lawyers. The White House seeks to frame this confirmation debate as a choice between either protecting the financial industry or the middle class however, Cordray's record as Ohio's AG and the broad authority delegated to the CFPB director and State AGs by Dodd-Frank may paint a different picture.

Aqua Dots Product Liability Litigation - PointOfLaw Forum

A must-read landmark decision from Judge Easterbrook in Aqua Dots Product Liability Litigation. The Chinese manufacturer of the Aqua Dots toy used the wrong adhesive in the product process; when swallowed, the adhesive metabolized into gamma-Hydroxybutyric acid, i.e., GHB, the so-called date-rape drug, with predictably adverse effects for the small children who did so.

The companies involved acted responsibly when they discovered the problem, and recalled the product, offering refunds and replacements.

There are of course legitimate personal injury claims that stem from a defective product like this. But there were also class actions seeking recovery for economic loss. What economic loss when the manufacturer is offering a refund or replacement? Well, that's a problem, isn't it, but lawyer-driven class actions often seek to free ride off of and take credit for what the manufacturer is already doing for the sake of justifying a large attorneys' fee: the attorneys in the similarly free-riding Mattel Lead Paint settlement asked for $12.9 million.

This will not fly in the Seventh Circuit now: "the district court should have relied on the text of Rule 23(a)(4), which says that a court may certify a class action only if 'the representative parties will fairly and adequately protect the interests of the class.' Plaintiffs want relief that duplicates a remedy that most buyers already have received, and that remains available to all members of the putative class. A representative who proposes that high transaction costs (notice and attorneys' fees) be incurred at the class members' expense to obtain a refund that already is on offer is not adequately protecting the class members' interests." It is good to see a court recognize that Rule 23(a)(4)'s adequacy requirement forbids class representatives from incurring socially wasteful litigation costs for the benefit of their attorneys at the expense of the class they represent. This will be an especially important principle in merger-and-acquisition strike suits.

Around the web, August 1 - PointOfLaw Forum

  • Even as left claims there is no such thing as voter fraud, honest Democratic prosecutors in Mississippi use DNA evidence to convict NAACP official stuffing absentee ballot boxes with dead voters. [Daily Caller; earlier on POL]
  • Montana Supreme Court: aluminum-bat manufacturer on hook for $850,000 for failure to warn—though the injured plaintiff wasn't the person who purchased the bat or would've seen the warning. [Wajert; Fisher @ Forbes; Patch v. Hillerich & Bradsby Co.; earlier on POL]
  • The problem of lack of demand-side regulation: Ribstein on Yockey on the FCPA: "The article paints a classic picture of over-criminalization in action and how a poorly designed and over-enforced law is crippling U.S. firms ability to compete internationally." [Ribstein; SSRN]
  • Related: ILR critical of WaPo denigration of FCPA reform efforts. [WaPo]
  • Government wants Internet providers to spy on your browsing history for them. [Sanchez @ NYPost]
  • Say what you will about Nancy Grace, but she's at least willing to file a Rule 11 motion; efforts in the House to return teeth to Rule 11 are probably doomed, though. [Frankel; OL]
  • Who's suing whom in the mobile phone market, graphically represented. [Lowering the Bar]
  • "Hilton guest makes federal case of 75-cent paper" [SF Chronicle (h/t N.M.); Gawker]
  • September 11 didn't create waves of PTSD; perhaps vindicating my 2008 testimony. [Bader; NYT]
  • Debt-ceiling bill not so much a "sugar-coated Satan sandwich" as a lot of sound and fury over nothing. [Barro; related: de Rugy]

The Senate is expected to vote shortly after noon today on whether to move ahead with the full debate on the nomination of John "Jack" McConnell to the U.S. District Court for the District of Rhode Island.

The public got a preview of any debate Tuesday when Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) spoke on the Senate floor against the nomination of McConnell, an attorney with Motley Rice who made -- and continues to make -- millions from the state tobacco lawsuit, is a major political contributor across the nation -- even in North Dakota -- and who in his public statements demonstrates judicial intemperance. Cornyn:

I am sorry to have to say this, but the hard truth is Mr. McConnell's record--which I will describe in a moment--is one of not upholding the rule of law but perverting the rule of law, ignoring the responsibilities he had to his client, and manipulating those ethical standards in order to enrich himself and his law partners.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, rose in defense of McConnell's nomination, but only after excoriating Republicans for delaying action on President Obama's judicial nominees. Leahy challenged Cornyn's assertion that McConnell had deceived the committee during the confirmation procedures, and praised the trial lawyer's dedication:

Some oppose him because he successfully represented plaintiffs, including the State of Rhode Island itself, in lawsuits against lead paint manufacturers. Some here in the Senate may support the lead paint industry. That is their right. I support those who want to go after the people who poison children. That is what Mr. McConnell did. But nobody should oppose Mr. McConnell for doing what lawyers do and vigorously representing his clients in those lawsuits.

It's a shock to see a Senate chairman so blithely accusing U.S. manufacturers of "poisoning" children. In any case, even if you admire McConnell's partnership with then Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse in ginning up a public nuisance complaint against the paint companies, it hardly reflects a mindset or legal experience befitting a judicial appointment.

We have The Congressional Record's account of the Cornyn and Leahy exchanges here.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) has distributed a "Dear Colleague" letter that destroys the already weak case for Senate confirmation of Motley Rice attorney John "Jack" McConnell to the U.S. District Court for Rhode Island. Cornyn charges McConnell with ethical failings, lack of judicial temperament, an anti-business bias and for helping to spread the practice of state-run contingency-fee lawsuits. From the letter (via the Institute for Legal Research):

[Mr. McConnell's] 25-year legal career is surrounded by ethical cloud. As a crusading plaintiff's lawyer, "Mr. McConnell and his firm helped pioneer the practice of soliciting public officials to bring lawsuits in which the private lawyers are paid a percentage of any judgment or settlement." Specifically, Mr. McConnell has helped initiate and direct the litigation of mass tort suits brought by state attorneys general against tobacco and lead -based paint manufacturers. I have long argued that these types of outsourced contingent-fee arrangements are inherently unethical and inevitably lead to the appearance of public corruption. In Texas, for instance, my predecessor as Attorney General served over three years in federal prison for his role in manipulating documents related to a contingent-fee contract and attempting to channel settlement funds to a close friend. While in the private sector contingency fee agreements, though not without controversy, can provide a poor person a key to the courthouse they could not otherwise afford, they have special problems in the public sector. In the public sectors it would be analogous to outsourcing traffic tickets to a private security firm paid by a percentage of the income - no checks, no balances, no exercise of prosecutorial discretion, just a pure profit motive.

More commentary below the fold ...

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on Monday filed a cloture motion to force a confirmation vote on John "Jack" McConnell, the Motley Rice lawyer and major Democratic contributor who made millions from the state tobacco lawsuits. President Obama has nominated the trial lawyer several times to the U.S. District Court for the District of Rhode Island, but only to find his confirmation blocked because of his controversial statements, legal history -- directing the state's contingency suit against paint manufacturers, for example -- and hyperpartisanship.

Reid's motion could force a floor vote as early as Wednesday. In filing for cloture Monday, Reid said:

Mr. REID. Mr. President, I hope, as I mentioned this morning, we are not in a situation where we have to file cloture on district court judges. That is a little much. I filed cloture on this because I couldn't get agreement not to do it, but I hope we don't have to have cloture on all the district court judges whom somebody has some concern about.

This is a very good man. Morally his record is impeccable. As a lawyer, he is certainly one of the two or three best lawyers in the State of Rhode Island, and I would hope we could get this done on Wednesday when this cloture motion ripens.

The Providence Journal reports, "Reid seeking to force Senate vote on nomination of John J. McConnell to U.S. District Court for R.I."

Earlier POL coverage.

The Senate Judiciary Committee today voted 11-7 on party lines to approve the nomination of John "Jack" McConnell for the U.S. District Court, District of Rhode Island. Whether the Motley Rice trial attorney and Democratic contributor ever gets a final confirmation vote on the Senate floor is another matter. (Updated Friday, 9 a.m.: Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC) joined the Democrats in supporting McConnell.)

Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA), the committee's ranking member, read a lengthy and strongly worded statement in opposition to McConnell's nomination. Excerpt:

Mr. McConnell has a view of the law that I believe is outside the mainstream of legal thought. Much of Mr. McConnell's career has been devoted to bringing some of the most controversial mass tort litigation of recent years. He has pursued the manufacturers of asbestos, tobacco, and lead paint, whose actions he believes to be "unjust." In bringing many of these cases, Mr. McConnell has often stretched legal argument beyond its breaking point. An example is the "public nuisance" theory he pursued in the Rhode Island lead paint case. Well-respected attorneys have said Mr. McConnell's theory "just [did not] mesh with centuries of Anglo-American law" and a former attorney general called the lead-paint cases "a lawsuit in search of a legal theory." 

The Rhode Island Supreme Court unanimously ruled against him in State v. Lead Industries Associates, Inc. In a well-reasoned opinion, the court found that there was no set of facts that he could have proven to establish that the defendants were liable in public nuisance.


The Senate Judiciary Committee holds a business meeting Thursday that includes a vote on the nomination of John "Jack" McConnell to be U.S. District Court Judge for the District of Rhode Island.

McConnell was one of the leading tobacco lawyers, a top money maker for the Motley Rice firm in Providence and a big Democratic contributor. He later worked with Attorney General (now U.S. Senator) Sheldon Whitehouse to gin up and pursue public nuisance claims against manufacturers of lead-based paint. The contingency fee lawsuit would have brought many more millions to McConnell, but was unanimously rejected by the Rhode Island Supreme Court in 2008.

And that's why he should be a federal judge!

Judicial Watch has pored through McConnell's committee disclosures and found that, if confirmed as a federal judge, he would still be pulling in millions of dollars annually from the tobacco settlement.

As the top litigator at his mega Providence law firm (Motley Rice), McConnell has raked in between $2 to $3 million a year since 1999 and will receive between $2.5 and $3.1 million annually through 2024 in “deferred compensation” for work on tobacco litigation.

See also Providence Journal, March 17, "Panel takes up McConnell nomination again." Also on the committee's agenda for a vote is Goodwin Liu, nominated to the Ninth Circuit Court.

UPDATE (1:30 p.m.): There's a North Dakota angle? Of course there is. Say Anything blogger Rob Port wonders if the tobacco settlement money is still driving politics in the state.

Stephen Moore at The Wall Street Journal reports on the April 5th election for Wisconsin Supreme Court, which organized labor and the political left are trying to turn into a referendum on Gov. Scott Walker's budget and collective bargaining reforms. From Political Diary, "Wisconsin's Battle Supreme":

State supreme court justice elections are typically slam dunks for the incumbent unless there is a scandal or a high-profile court decision that galvanizes opposition. In this case, incumbent David Prosser is caught in the crossfire over collective bargaining issues. Conservatives currently hold a 4-3 majority on the Wisconsin court, but an upset would give liberals the balance of power. Mr. Prosser's opponent, JoAnne Kloppenburg, was a relative unknown and a decided underdog until the protests ignited in Madison. She is now running around that state arguing that Mr. Prosser is a rubber stamp for Governor Walker and his agenda. The liberal groups are up with ads called "Prosser Is Walker."

Union activists and their allies explicitly link Kloppenburg's candidacy to reversing the new collective bargaining law in the Supreme Court. As The Superior Telegram reported, "PeopleFirst rallies behind Kloppenburg," quoting an organizer for the group, Mike Raunio:

Raunio says Kloppenburg could be a vital asset to repealing Scott Walker’s cut to collective bargaining rights.

“She is an ally to the people of Wisconsin. If we help her to get into to position then she will defiantly be an advocate to the rights of workers and everyday citizens.”

Both candidates have accepted public financing limiting their expenditures to $300,000, so outside groups are doing the advertising. Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce recently went on the air with a restrained pro-Prosser ad. In a fund-raising appeal to its members, WMC President James Haney wrote, "One union even told its members they want to defeat a Supreme Court justice to 'get even.' It’s shocking and they are putting big money behind their efforts, including boycotts of home-grown Wisconsin employers."

At Legal Newsline, John O'Brien reports on two cases about to come before the Mississippi Supreme Court.

One involves the discipline of William Guy and Thomas Brock, two attorneys found by a federal jury to have defrauded Illinois Central Railroad in an asbestos case. (Earlier: March 2010, April 5, February 5.)

The other is a lead-paint case where all sorts of evidentiary and jury-selection shenanigans occurred: a (overly-coached?) witness insisted that he saw cans whose label said "lead paint"—which, if true, would rule out defendant Sherwin-Williams as liable, since it never had such labels. The plaintiff, who allegedly had paint chips in his mouth as a child, calculated his damages on the basis of an alleged need for a 24-hour-a-day "life coach" (though he was able to complete high school, compete in varsity athletics, and drives a car), resulting in a $7 million verdict from a Jefferson County jury that included several friends of the plaintiffs' family.

More on the John McConnell (D.R.I.) nomination - PointOfLaw Forum

The Ocean State Policy Research Institute wants some answers about McConnell's role in a corrupt $2.5 million cy pres award in the Rhode Island lead paint litigation—to a Massachusetts hospital that Motley Rice owed money to, and that accepted the cy pres award as satisfaction of Motley Rice's obligation, thus serving as a laundered attorney's fee. A shame neither the Democratic U.S. Attorney nor the Democratic state attorney general is going to investigate it: the Senate Judiciary Committee should take this opportunity to do so.

On Monday, the California Supreme Court endorsed the corruption of local government hiring contingent-fee lawyers to prosecute cases, notwithstanding its earlier precedent forbidding such a conflict of interest, siding with an appellate court that had reversed a trial-court disqualification of attorneys. [CJAC; Legal Newsline; Mercury News; Steele; Santa Clara v. Superior Court.] We discussed the issue thoroughly in 2008, including a column by John Sullivan. The question now is whether defendants are permitted to engage in discovery of the attorneys suing them (since the Court has created a fact-bound test for determining the required "neutrality" of the contingency-fee attorneys) or whether the "neutrality" test will be de facto toothless and satisfied with the formality of a figurehead government official at the apex of the lawsuit.

You will recall that some of the contingency-fee contracts at issue in this lawsuit explicitly violated the neutrality test, but the appellate court decided to honor self-serving parol evidence; the California Supreme Court did reverse this disingenuousness, requiring that the contingency-fee contracts be modified.

The good news is that the decision is narrowly drawn: the Court relied upon the fact that this was a lead-paint suit so there was no risk that an ongoing business practice would be enjoined, and used that fact pattern to distinguish Clancy. Which means that most other contingency-fee suits could still be challenged.

The bad news is that the Court spoke of an abusive lead-paint public-nuisance suit as if it was an entirely appropriate use of the public-nuisance doctrine, which is certain to lead to more regulation by litigation and empowerment of the attorney general's office. (Which makes one wonder why Jerry Brown is running for governor, since, except for patronage possibilities, the California attorney general is now a more powerful position.)

(Update: Carter Wood, Walter Olson, and James Beck weigh in.)

The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to vote Thursday, June 17, on the nomination of Rhode Island trial lawyer and lead-paint litigator John "Jack" McConnell to be a U.S. District Court Judge. McConnell is the Motley Rice partner and campaign contributor who orchestrated the state's public nuisance lawsuit against paint manufacturers. The committee vote was postponed from last week. (Earlier POL posts.)

In sort-of-related news, "American Association for Justice Honors Trial Lawyer Ron Motley with Lifetime Achievement Award." Motley will receive the honor at the AAJ's summer convention next month in Vancouver, B.C.

Before breaking for the Memorial Day reces, Democratic leadership in the House of Representatives had hoped to push through on the final Friday H.R. 5175, the DISCLOSE Act, to limit speech in response to the Citizens United v. FEC decision. But the House Rules Committee canceled its committee meeting and the bill never made it to the floor.

Looking at the both the Rules Committee and House floor schedule for next week, we find no mention of the bill. Have the faux passions cooled, partisan motivations waned? Doubt it, but the bill's absence is curious.

On the Senate side, the Judiciary Committee has items of interest. Tuesday morning the full committee holds a hearing, "The Risky Business of Big Oil: Have Recent Court Decisions and Liability Caps Encouraged Irresponsible Corporate Behavior?" So far the only witnesses scheduled are Christopher Jones of Keogh, Cox and Wilson of Baton Rouge; Jack Coleman, managing partner, EnergyNorthAmerica, LLC, and formerly a Republican counsel for the House Committee on Natural Resources; and Tom Galligan, president, Colby Sawyer College in New London, NH.

On Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee will vote on judicial nominations, including the controversial nomination of Rhode Island trial lawyer and lead paint litigator John "Jack" McConnell to be U.S. District Court Judge. Also on the schedule is President Obama's nomination to the Second Circuit of Robert Chatigny, a U.S. District Court judge in Connecticut. The Washington Times had a tough editorial recently on Chatigny's record that also criticized McConnell, "Sexual sadism, unleaded."

At NRO this morning, I argued that it was important to keep an eye on judicial nominations other than Elena Kagan's to the Supreme Court:

[I]n 1986, the Democrats in the Senate were so focused on attacking William Rehnquist -- whom Ronald Reagan had chosen to elevate to chief justice of the Supreme Court -- that they made nary a noise about Reagan's pick to succeed Rehnquist as an associate justice. Thus it was that Antonin Scalia was confirmed to sit for life on the highest court in the land with 98 senators in favor, and none against.

It's incumbent on those of us who care about the judiciary to keep this in mind as the nation's attention focuses on Elena Kagan. Only a tiny fraction of cases decided by the appellate courts are granted review by the Supreme Court, which means that those lower appellate benches are usually the courts of last resort in the federal system. And because so many cases never make it even that far, federal trial courts wield enormous power, too.

I focused on three nominees of concern:

  • Goodwin Liu, my law school classmate (see previous posts on this site);

  • Louis Butler, of Wisconsin Supreme Court lead paint and med-mal fame (see ealier posts here); and

  • Jack McConnell, the plaintiffs' lawyer who was Senator Sheldon Whitehouse's symbiotic partner in Rhode Island's $3 billion-lead-paint-verdict fiasco (see posts here, and earlier writings here and here).

Liu's nomination was voted out of the Judiciary Committee today on a straight (12-7) party-line vote.

Our readers may recall that Butler's nomination also passed out of Judiciary last year on a 12-7 party-line vote but wasn't acted upon by the full body; and that the president resubmitted his nomination this January.

McConnell's hearings before Judiciary were scheduled for this afternoon. As Carter reported, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce came out strongly against this nomination on Tuesday, and my piece today in NRO was joined by critical editorials in the Washington Times and American Spectator.

In Rhode Island, campaigning on failure - PointOfLaw Forum

Rhode Island Attorney General Patrick Lynch, a Democrat running for governor, is actually campaigning on having lost a lawsuit. From AP's report on a candidate forum, "6 Rhode Island candidates for governor discuss childhood poverty at interfaith forum":

When the candidates were asked about protecting children, Democrat Patrick Lynch touted his record as two-term attorney general, including suing former lead paint companies for making a toxic product.

The state won a jury verdict in 2006 that could have cost three companies billions of dollars, but the decision was overturned two years later by the state Supreme Court.

"It's still used for political potshots, but I was the only one who stood up," Lynch said.

Stood up and continued the legally suspect public nuisance lawsuit started by Lynch's predecessor, AG Sheldon Whitehouse, before finally losing! (Supreme Court opinion here.)

State of Rhode Island v. Lead Industries Association, Inc., et al. case is in the news again this week because the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday will hold a hearing on the nomination of John J. "Jack" McConnell, Jr., to be U.S. District Judge for the District of Rhode Island. McConnell is the Motley Rice attorney who, on a contingency basis, "led the trial team representing the State of Rhode Island in the public nuisance litigation against the major former manufacturers of lead paint."

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Institute for Legal Reform just issued a statement opposing McConnell's nomination. Lisa Rickard, ILR President, said:

In addition to earning a lackluster rating from the American Bar Association, Mr. McConnell has defined his plaintiffs' lawyer career by suing employers based on controversial legal theories. For example, he has spent a large part of the past decade advancing a misguided interpretation of the public nuisance theory in lead paint litigation, which was rejected by four state supreme courts, including the unanimous rejection by the Rhode Island Supreme Court.

Nina Totenberg's various Morning Edition reports this morning on the expected nomination of Solicitor General Elena Kagan to the U.S. Supreme Court included these facts.

  • Her presence would result in three female justices on the nine-member court for the first time in its history.
  • If confirmed, she also would become the third Jewish justice on the current court, which has six Catholics.
  • With Stevens' exit, there would be no Protestants.

But what clan does she belong to?

Oh, right. It's Harvard Law.

Elsewhere in controversial court nominations, the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing Thursday on judicial nominations, including that of John J. "Jack" McConnell, Jr., to be U.S. District Judge for the District of Rhode Island. McConnell, a partner at Motley Rice, is Rhode Island's leading trial lawyer, one of the original tobacco attorneys, and a generous campaign contributor to the state's Democrats. (He and his wife, $700,000 over a decade!) McConnell and then-Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse (now a U.S. Senator) ginned up the public nuisance suit against paint manufacturers, eventually thrown out by the Rhode Island Supreme Court. (Earlier Point of Law post.)

On Friday, the Judiciary Committee is scheduled to vote on the nomination of Goodwin Liu to serve on the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Republicans delayed a vote scheduled for last week on Liu. Unfortunately, the vote is being cast as a warm-up to the Kagan confirmation battle, diverting attention from Liu's far-out record, which Liu implicitly renounced at his hearing. We liked this Ed Whelan headline, "Goodwin Liu's Ambition Exceeds Even His Inexperience."

UPDATE (2:15 p.m.): Eric Turkewitz, author of the New York Personal Injury Law Blog, takes note of Kagan's thin experience in the private sector. From "Elena Kagan: The Three-Year Hole in the Resume":

Lawyers for the Vatican have called the lawsuit against Pope Benedict and the Holy See a "publicity stunt." I wouldn't go so far as to say that - it has a chance of surviving a motion to dismiss and there may be, embedded in its fifty four pages, a theory that might get to the jury. But there is a sense in which that a publicity stunt is precisely what it is and there may be some larger lessons here about the American liability system.

The lawsuit arises from the predations of a pedophile priest in Milwaukee named Father Murphy. It's a nasty case. Murphy abused numerous young boys at a school for the deaf, largely in the fifties and sixties, but perhaps extending to the early seventies when he was (quite improperly) quietly shuffled away to an early retirement. It is clear that the Milwaukee Archdiocese - in particular Archbishop Meier - failed to act in ways - during the 1960s - that would have halted the abuse. There is no evidence that the Vatican, much less the Pope, had any knowledge of or involvement with Father Murphy during this period. By the time the Vatican (and then Cardinal Ratzinger as head of the Office for the Propagation of the Faith) became aware of Murphy's offenses, it was the late 90s. The Milwaukee Archdiocese had brought a belated action to defrock him.

There is a controversy over how that proceeding was conducted and whether it ended prematurely. But it could not have prevented any further abuse and it is almost certain that, however it was handled, Father Murphy would have (as he did) die before it could be completed.

Here is where the publicity stunt begins. What makes this case newsworthy - what puts you in the New York Times and on the networks news - is the defendant in the Apostolic Palace.

There are multiple legal problems with bringing an action against the Pope and Holy See under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. Two circuit courts of appeals have allowed part, but not all, of such cases to go forward. The outcomes are not consistent with each other and, in one, a cert petition is pending before the Supreme Court. Without getting into the details, the reasoning in these cases is far from unassailable.

But the theories that have been permitted - largely negligent supervision and a rather curious notion of respondeat superior - have either been rejected or are unlikely to be recognized by Wisconsin law. The Wisconsin Constitution has been interpreted to confer rather broad protection for church autonomy. Even if these problems are not fatal, the actions complained seem to be almost certainly barred by the statute of limitations.

And, as this is important, the wrongs alleged to have been committed by Pope Benedict himself could not have averted any of the very real harms suffered by the plaintiffs. Father Murphy's predations had ended long ago. They - and the feckless response of the Milwaukee Archdiocese - were well known within the deaf community. (It was pressure from that community that lead to the charges against Murphy.) The Milwaukee District Attorney had, rightly or wrongly, already declined to prosecute him. Unless one buys into the dubious notion that the failure to a religious institution to impose discipline long after the fact is a legally cognizable injury, the naming of Pope Benedict XVI is, notwithstanding the sympathetic nature of the plaintiff and the very real horror to which he was subjected - a publicity stunt.

There are a few larger implications. Litigation, in this instance, is being used as a front in a larger war to affect Vatican policy in the future. Although advocates say that something "must change," the fact is that almost everything about the Church's response to clergy abuse has changed. The gravamen of the complaint is to have outsiders manage that change. Once again, we see an attempt to take traditional common law notions of duty and liability and extend them to form the basis for prospective regulation - something which, I would argue, strains judicial competence and usurps prerogatives of civil society - particularly where the institution to be regulated is a religious institution.

Second, a theme in the complaint is that the Vatican should have acted in a way that would have publicized what it calls, at a least one point, "the practice" of child sex abuse. The harm in its failure to do so, it seems, was not limited to the predations committed by known abusers who were placed in a position to abuse again, but in the failure (or so it seems) to let people know that, in general, "priests abuse kids."

This reminds me of other cases in which the theory of liability has been that the defendant (I think of the lead paint and tobacco cases, although those were stronger examples of the approach than this is) should have fallen on its sword. There are numerous difficulties with this theory in this context, but, once again, it strikes me as a questionable spin on traditional notions of common law duty.

Finally, we have the problem of our repeated inability to discuss these matters rationally. When I wrote an op-ed in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel a few weeks ago arguing that it might not be a good idea to completely abolish Wisconsin's generous statute of limitations for cases like this, I was accused of siding against "victims" and not appreciating the gravity of Father Murphy's offenses. Neither charge is fair.

Just as lawyers know that being "against crime" does not mean that we ought to do away with constitutional protections for criminal defendants, we also know that empathy for those to whom bad things have happened doesn't mean that all limitations on liability - even for those "deep pockets" whose relationship with the wrong is indirect - ought to be swept aside.

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