Source: Chicago Tribune
Date: 16 December 2005

Philip Morris law firms, supporters backed judge

By Barbara Rose, Tribune staff reporter. Tribune reporter
Ameet Sachdev contributed to this report

Lawyers for Philip Morris USA contributed $16,800 to help elect a judge who cast a deciding vote in Thursday's Illinois Supreme Court decision favoring the tobacco giant.

The judge also received $1.2 million in campaign money from a group that filed an amicus brief supporting the cigarette-maker.

Yet no one suggested that Judge Lloyd Karmeier recuse himself from a closely watched case in which he voted with three others to strike down a $10.1 billion judgment, handing a huge victory to Philip Morris.

For better or worse, in states where judges are elected, they inevitably decide cases in which their deep-pocketed campaign donors have important interests. The Philip Morris case, the biggest verdict in Illinois history, underscores the stakes.

Judicial campaign reform advocates say the system is flawed.

"The system creates the perception that money is influencing justice," said Cindi Canary, director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.

"The vast majority of judges are extraordinarily honorable people, but when you've got big dollars flying around and a lot of special interests circling like hornets over judicial elections, it creates an impression that ultimately is damaging to the judiciary," Canary said.

Last year's race between Republican Karmeier and Democrat Gordon Maag was the most expensive judicial campaign in state history. Each candidate raised more than $4 million.

Trial lawyers, a traditional Democratic constituency, lined up behind Maag while tort reform advocates, chambers of commerce, doctors and industry groups backed Karmeier.

Karmeier is the newest justice and was elected after the case came before the court in 2003. He is prohibited from talking about the Philip Morris decision because the case has not concluded. Plaintiffs' attorneys still may petition for a rehearing or appeal.

Joseph Tybor, press secretary for the Illinois Supreme Court, said Karmeier is "an experienced and well-respected jurist who has tried to insulate himself from knowing the identities of campaign contributors and would not allow campaign contributions to have any effect on his ruling in this or any other case."

"A fair reading of the multiple opinions filed in this case, including Justice Karmeier's concurring opinion, demonstrate that the reasoning was based on questions of law and not on outside influences," Tybor said.

Meanwhile, the judge's election backers were pleased with Thursday's 4-2 high court decision.

"Karmeier's election changed the vote," said Edward Murnane, president of the nonprofit Illinois Civil Justice League, which contributed $1.2 million to the judge's campaign and filed an amicus brief supporting Philip Morris.

"Even though he wasn't the (sole) deciding vote, if Gordon Maag had been elected" the outcome might well have been different because the decision required a majority of the seven-member court, Murnane noted.

Chief Justice Robert Thomas, who was elected to the court in 2000, recused himself because he is being represented in another matter by one of the attorneys representing the smokers.

Murnane said that even though his organization's money played a role in electing Karmeier, "we never tried to influence him on how he should act in a case. I've never talked to him about any case, even after the fact."

Three law firms that represented Philip Morris were campaign donors.

Winston & Strawn LLP contributed $10,000, according to state Board of Elections records. Mayer, Brown, Rowe & Maw LLP donated $5,000, and Burroughs, Hepler, Broom, MacDonald, Herbrank & True LLP contributed $1,800.

The Illinois Chamber of Commerce, which also filed an amicus brief in support of Philip Morris, contributed $269,338, according to the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.

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