LAFAYETTE — After one of the most bruising and expensive judicial election battles in the history of Louisiana, the state's oil and gas interests and lawsuit reform activists have accused plaintiff lawyers of trying to stack the Louisiana Supreme Court in their favor.
Newly elected Supreme Court Judge Jimmy Genovese
Judge James "Jimmy" Genovese was elected Nov. 8 to the Third District seat on the Louisiana Supreme Court, defeating fellow Republican Judge Marilyn Castle.
Over $2 million was spent on the race, including more than $1.5 million by outside groups.
Genovese, 67, defeated Castle, 63, with 51 percent of the vote. He succeeds the retiring Judge Janet Knoll.
Restore Our Coast PAC spent close to $500,000 in support of Genovese. Many of its contributors are plaintiff lawyers
from law firms involved in five parishes' claim that oil and gas companies are responsible for coastal erosion, with $100,000 donated by Carmouche and Associates, a Baton Rouge law firm involved in suits against oil and gas companies.
Melissa Landry, executive director of Louisiana Lawsuit Abuse Watch, said that trial lawyers have funneled campaign contributions to judges in the state for years.
“But this election stands out because of the scale, size and timing of the contributions,” Landry told the Louisiana Record.
“A close look at Genovese’s campaign finance reports reveals a truly staggering flow of plaintiffs’ bar cash,” Landry said. “Louisiana trial lawyers spent more than $2 million on direct contributions and political action committees to help Genovese get elected.”
She said what was even more troubling is that a large portion of the money was contributed over the final weeks by “big-money plaintiff firms involved in controversial lawsuits being pushed by Gov. John Bel Edwards against the state’s oil and gas industry.”
“These suits are potentially worth billions of dollars and will almost certainly end up before the Louisiana Supreme Court," Landry said. "What do you think the lawyers who spent millions to help Genovese get elected will expect in return?”
She added, ”Would you have a lot of confidence in the outcome of a football game if one team was paying the officials?”
Landry said the sudden infusion of cash into the Louisiana Supreme Court race comes as no surprise, “given the disproportionate impact of trial lawyer spending in previous elections."
“But anyone who has an interest in impartial justice should to be appalled by this," Landry said. "The U.S. Supreme Court has noted on numerous occasions that disproportionate spending by personal injury lawyers and other special interest groups on judicial elections for the express purpose of influencing major court decisions threatens both the appearance and actuality of judicial independence.”
The situation raises fundamental fairness questions, she said.
“When money and politics influence justice, no one can expect to get a fair shake,” Landry said.
Gifford Briggs, of the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association said the election of Genovese was unfortunate.
“Marilyn Castle is a fantastic lady and an amazing judge and without question would have been the best choice, just looking at her track record and experience,” Briggs told the Louisiana Record. “I do not know the final details but it does appear a lot of plaintiff lawyers contributed to Genovese’s campaign and also into the super PAC. They were spending a lot of money on the race.”
Briggs said Genovese benefited from a lot of the same money that was spent on the election of Louisiana Supreme Court Justice Jeff Hughes in 2012.
“I think there is absolutely some intent on behalf of the trial lawyers, because they know a lot of the cases end up in the Supreme Court,” Briggs said.
He added, “What I do hope going forward is that Judge Genovese will not be influenced by the amount of spending on this race, or influenced by the spending of other groups.”
The bigger issue about the spending on the race is public perception, that people believe Genovese might be influenced because of the money contributed to his campaign, Briggs argued.
Jim Harris, of the Coalition for Common Sense, told the Louisiana Record he was supporting Castle in the election because of Genovese's record on the Third Circuit Court of Appeal.
Major contributions came from the plaintiff bar, Harris said, but added, “Genovese is a good man and hopefully will make decisions based on the law. I wish him success and hope he does a good job.”