We have learned from the sordid saga of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich of Illinois of the lengths to which some people will go for an appointment to the United States Senate. Apparently, it’s not all that different for Blago’s fellow Democrats in Washington, D.C. when the prize is a federal judgeship. How else to explain President Obama’s nomination of Jack McConnell, a Rhode Island trial lawyer, for the federal district court in his state. McConnell made his fortune at the Motley Rice class-action law firm litigating asbestos, tobacco, and lead paint cases. Since 1993, he and his wife have contributed $694,000 to Democrats. Among the beneficiaries of this campaign largesse were Obama, four members of the Senate Judiciary Committee that approved his nomination, and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. All 12 Democrats on the panel voted yes on McConnell’s nomination.
Have other judicial nominee been so generous to politicians?For comparison purposes, only four of President George W. Bush’s 261 district court appointments contributed more than $20,000 in their entire political careers prior to their nomination, according to Federal Election Commission data. The most generous of those, a former county GOP chairman, gave $83,000 before he was appointed.
By the way, McConnell’s law firm also previously kicked in another $7,700 to Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., the lone Republican voting in his favor. That only one member of the GOP was involved should surprise no one. The trial lawyers’ chief Washington voice is the American Association for Justice, dubbed a “Heavy Hitter” by OpenSecrets.org. The AAJ has given more than $31 million in federal campaign contributions in the last 20 years, 91 percent of which went to Democrats.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., who voted for his home-state nominee, has a long relationship with McConnell that includes a history of generous campaign contributions. When Whitehouse was Rhode Island’s attorney general, he awarded McConnell’s firm a lucrative contingency-fee contract to sue lead paint manufacturers on behalf of the state.McConnell pursued the case using an unorthodox theory. In 2006, he sold a judge and then a jury on the idea that lead paint is not just a dangerous product but also a “public nuisance,” and that companies that once manufactured it must therefore pay for its abatement everywhere in Rhode Island.Can you imagine the costs — and more importantly, the size of the contingency fee?
When the state Supreme Court unanimously slapped down McConnell’s theory, it delivered a welcome dose of common sense. Unfortunately, common sense is rare in the nation’s capital and it will become less so if more men like McConnell are allowed to advance the agenda of the Democratic Party and the class-action trial lawyers’ bar from the federal bench.