Become an 1819 Member
Lines have been drawn in the decades-long battle between businesses and trial lawyers as the race for the upcoming seat in the Supreme Court of Alabama heats up.
Debra Jones and Greg Cook are the two Republican candidates in the upcoming state Supreme Court election.
Because the United States is one of the few countries in the world that selects judges at the state and local level by popular election, it means candidates for what is supposed to be an impartial position become politicians, requiring the raising of money for election campaigns.
And the financial support for Jones and Cook couldn’t be more different.
Jones seems to be the favorite for trial lawyers and personal injury law offices. Within the past two weeks, Jones has received over $1.2 million from various trial law firms through Political Action Committees (PACs) in May alone.
Cook has also received donations from individuals and PACs, albeit at a much smaller scale. His largest single donation, not given by Cook himself, was a $50,000 donation from the Alabama Realtors PAC.
Campaign contributions are reported and recorded through the Alabama Electronic Fair Campaign Practices Act (FCPA) Reporting System at the Secretary of State’s office.
Jones received nearly $639,000 from the Progress for Justice PAC (PFJ), which has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from trial lawyers over the years. PFJ claims it is committed to strengthening the civil justice system for all Alabamians.
BIZPAC, which says its purpose is to support candidates for public office who support and promote the interest of business and industry to enhance the welfare of the people of Alabama, has also donated $500,000 to Jones's campaign in 2022.
Jones did not respond to multiple contact attempts by 1819 News.
In a 2018 study published by Duke Law School (Perceptions of Bias: Do Campaign Contributions Create Public Perceptions of Judicial Bias), Eric Waltenburg and Charles Lopeman identified a “transitory association between judicial contributions and case outcomes in Alabama, Kentucky, and Ohio tort decisions. In a 50-state study of supreme courts, Joanna Shepherd found that contributions from pro-business groups, pro-labor groups, doctor groups, insurance companies, and lawyer groups increase the probability that justices will vote for the litigants favored by those interest groups. Using the same database, Shepherd and her colleague, Michael Kang, found that every dollar of direct contributions from pro-business groups is associated with an increase in the probability that a state supreme court justice will vote for business litigants.”
Even though research findings are mixed regarding the actual relationship between judicial campaign contributions and judicial impartiality, many legal observers note that judicial campaign contributions can nonetheless create the perception of improper influence, and that a judge should recuse himself from any case involving a campaign contributor.
According to Jones's opponent, Greg Cook, trial lawyers in the past have traditionally supported Democratic candidates in Alabama.
"You can go back to the 1990s, and early 2000s where [trial lawyers] gave to the Democratic judicial candidates – in large amounts of money, and the business community typically gave to the Republican Party," said Cook. "Now, they are giving a massive amount of money to one of the judicial candidates in the Republican primary, and that is certainly new. I'm disappointed that they have chosen to do that. They must obviously feel that I've had a number of businesses contribute to me.
"… I can't speculate as to what they plan to gain from this, but I can say I am very disappointed by it."
While Jones didn’t respond to questions about this election cycle, in 2012 Jones was involved in a race for another seat on the court, in which she decried the influence of large special interest and PAC campaign donations. In the 2012 race, Jones's opponent, Tommy Bryan, raised significantly more money than Jones, leading her to imply that the donations came with a quid pro quo.
"You have to wonder: Is it the amount of the verdict that causes that result?" Jones told AL.com in 2012. "A lot of the trial judges that do this every day are not pleased with all those cases coming back, and the opinion is that they're sending them back because they don't like the amount of the verdict.
"That tells me that that special interest, or PAC money, does … influence those opinions… Common sense will tell you if you take a $25,000 PAC donation, you're going to be influenced - period."
Trial lawyers, sometimes called personal injury lawyers, specialize in representing a person against another person or corporation in a lawsuit, sometimes called plaintiff law or "tort law."
In decades past, Alabama was among a handful of states known for being extremely generous to plaintiffs and levying harsh penalties for defendants – especially corporate defendants. The excess of what were commonly referred to as “frivolous” lawsuits in the state caused Forbes Magazine to give Alabama the title of "tort hell" in 1993.
According to Michael DeBow with Samford University’s Cumberland School of Law, 1994 was when the political landscape of the state Supreme Court began to shift.
"The problem was that Alabama juries began to award large amounts of money on account of conduct that seemed to critics to fall far short of the kinds of 'reprehensible' behavior that had been required for punitive damages in the past," Debow said. "Also troubling was the fact that juries were not awarding punitive damages only in cases involving personal injury or death, but were awarding them in contract-based cases."
In 1994, all nine justices on the Supreme Court of Alabama were Democrats - as were virtually every other elected office in the state.
Also, in 1994, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) tried a case that had a straw's effect on the proverbial camel's back.
The Supreme Court of Alabama upheld an Alabama Circuit Court ruling and ordered auto manufacturer BMW to pay a customer $4 million in punitive damages and $4,000 in compensatory damages. The manufacturer had repainted a BMW it sold the customer without disclosing the repair.
The case, known as BMW of North America v. Gore, made its way to the SCOTUS, who reversed the SCA's decision and ruled in favor of BMW.
That same year, Republican Perry Hooper Sr. ran for Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, relying mainly on criticism of Alabama's excessive legal landscape in light of the BMW debacle.
After a year-long court battle over unnotarized ballots, Hooper was ruled the winner of the election, and the state had its first Republican Chief Justice since reconstruction.
"The remarkable transformation of the Alabama Supreme Court was the result of the decisions of Alabama voters and the conservative judicial philosophies of the people they elected to that court over the past decade," Debow said.
Elections for state Supreme Court are staggered, meaning that each justice serves a six-year term so that all nine seats are not up for election in the same cycle.
Following Hooper's election, the number of Democrats on the state Supreme Court began to shrink. Democrat Sue Bell Cobb served as Chief Justice from 2007 until her retirement in 2011 to run for governor. As of today, no Democrats are sitting as state Supreme Court Justices.
Some in the legal sphere have speculated that plaintiff lawyers have been forced to adapt to the partisan shift since lobbying for Democratic candidates would be a losing battle.
"[Trial lawyers have] traditionally given to Democratic candidates," said Cook. "It's certainly a new development to see them giving large amounts of money to a candidate in the Republican primary."
To connect with the author of this story, or to comment, email email@example.com.
Don’t miss out! Subscribe to our newsletter and get our top stories every weekday morning.