Monday, March 06, 2006

The little guy just got littler

The Supreme Court refused Monday to consider whether a top judge in Illinois improperly voted to throw out a $1 billion judgment against State Farm Insurance Co. after accepting campaign donations from company lawyers and executives. Thus the case is over and State Farm won. The little guy (or gal) just got littler. The case raised an important question about judicial ethics: does the Constitution entitle average citizens a day in court before an impartial judge? Apparently not.

State Farm customers filed and won a class-action lawsuit that the company committed fraud for refusing to pay for top-quality replacement parts on damaged cars. Illinois (my home state sadly to say) Supreme Court Justice Lloyd Karmeier was a deciding vote in a decision to throw out the entire judgment last year. Karmeier, a Republican, and his Democratic opponent spent, combined, more than $9 million in 2004 in what experts called the most expensive judge race in American history. Karmeier directly received $350,000 in State Farm-related donations. After taking the bench he sided with State Farm, and separately voted to throw out a $10 billion fraud judgment against Philip Morris over the marketing of its "light" cigarettes. Pretty good return on investment: spend $350,000 to prevent losing $1 billion. Probably just a coincidence in who State Farm executives donated to.

A dozen public interest groups had pressed the Supreme Court to declare that people have a due process right to an unbiased judge, pointing out that 30 states will hold supreme court elections this year and money may taint those contests. Lawyers for the groups, including Common Cause, told justices that high-dollar judicial races "engender an appearance of corruption that critically threatens the very foundation of the courts, and the rights of the litigants who appear in them."

But lawyers for State Farm flatly denied that and said the company itself gave no money to Karmeier. "This court should reject (their) attempt to salvage some part of their case by improperly impugning the integrity of Justice Karmeier and the Illinois Supreme Court," lead lawyer Sheila Birnbaum said in a filing. Don't you have to have some integrity before it can be impugned?

My favorite columnist Michael Kinsley once wrote that there is no such thing as an "appearance of impropriety" or an "appearance of a conflict of interest." Either there is one or there isn't. Sort of like the appearance of being pregnant. Either you are or you're not even though some women, and men for that matter, look pregnant when they aren't. But I digress.

So you be the judge. Was there an "appearance of corruption" in this case or just corruption? Is there an "appearance of corruption" in the Republican Congress, House and Senate, or just corruption? It appears to me to be an easy choice.


Blogger Reign of Reason said...

We have to find some way of eliminating the influence of large $$$ in public campaigns...

Public financing anyone?

It can't be that hard to come up with a system that uses public $$ to finance the campaigns of viable candidates. Viability can be established via petition signatures, etc.

Until we get the money out of elections we're in for more of the same...

3:20 PM  
Blogger Intellectual Insurgent said...

There went the judiciary...

7:24 PM  
Blogger Capt. Fogg said...

Well better a judge on the take than a judicial activist! Besides all that money will trickle down on us and that will benefit everyone much better than some nonsense about justice.

6:40 PM  

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