Week marks split decision for trial lawyers
Media attention focused on the Illinois Supreme Court's reversal of the $10-billion judgment against Philip Morris. The high court reversed the decision of the notoriously plaintiff-friendly Madison County trial court in a 4-2 split decision. Newly elected Judge Lloyd Karmeier, a Republican, cast the deciding vote. Karmeier was elected to the court last year in a costly contest against Democrat Gordon Maag. Trial lawyers backed Maag, while business interests backed Karmeier. In Illinois, supreme court judges are elected directly by voters in partisan elections, on the same party tickets as candidates for president, governor and the like.
In contrast, under Missouri's non-partisan court plan, vacancies on the Missouri Supreme Court and three district courts of appeal are filled by appointment of the governor, whose choices are limited to three candidates nominated by an appellate judicial commission. Some trial judges, including those in St. Louis City and County, are chosen the same way. Voters periodically vote whether to retain a judge, but no Missouri judge has lost such an election in over 50 years.
But the process in Missouri is still very political. In recent years, trial lawyers representing criminal defendants and personal injury claimants have become major financial supporters of Democratic candidates. This contrasts with the long-time (though eroding) support of Big Business interests for Republican candidates. The legal interests of Big Business (especially casualty insurance companies) are diametrically opposed to the trial lawyers. (In a political context, the term "trial lawyers" does not include those attorneys who appear in the same trials defending claims against insurance companies and other businesses, even though they too are literally trial lawyers.) Republican demonization of trial lawyers' influence over Democratic
candidates reached the presidential level last year, as supporters of the Bush-Cheney ticket criticized Democratic vice-presidential nominee John Edwards for his pre-senatorial career as a trial lawyer.
Missouri’s judicial nominating commissions consist of a designated chief appellate judge plus equal numbers of attorneys elected by the bar and citizen members appointed by the governor, all in staggered terms. During the 12 years preceding the election of Republican Matt Blunt, Democratic governors appointed all of Missouri’s appellate judges and also the citizen members of the commissions. Contests for the lawyer spots are not overtly partisan, but tend to pit candidates favored by trial lawyers against candidates favored by business interests, which correlates strongly with Democrat vs. Republican. Republicans believe that Governor Blunt’s prerogative to pick conservative judges is being thwarted by nominating commissions who present the governor with exclusively Democrat and/or pro-trial lawyer choices from which to pick. Holdover citizen commissioners appointed by Blunt’s Democrat predecessor, Bob Holden, often join with lawyer commissioners who are trial lawyers to do just that. The votes of lawyer commissioners are often decisive. These dynamics raise the stakes in the bar elections for the lawyer members of the commissions.
This is the context in which this and last month’s bar elections for lawyer commissioners took place. The trial lawyers took two of three, and for the first time, women lawyers won all of the contests.
The most important seat was on the appellate judicial commission, the statewide body that nominates judges for the Missouri Supreme Court and the three district courts of appeal. Nancy Mogab won a runoff election, narrowly defeating Frank Gundlach, 1988-1753, for a seat representing eastern Missouri lawyers. Mogab represents injured workers in workers compensation claims and has long been a leader in advocacy groups for trial lawyers, whose support she enjoyed. Her late father, Charlie Mogab, was a legendary St. Louis trial lawyer. In contrast, Gundlach is a partner at a large downtown firm primarily representing business interests and is a past-president of the John Marshall Republican Club (an organization of Republican attorneys). Mogab replaces Gerard Carmody, a partner in a Clayton firm primarily representing business interests, including insurance companies and medical professionals in malpractice cases.
Lawyers in the City of St. Louis elected Mary Anne Seday to the judicial commission for the city’s circuit courts. Seday is a civil rights attorney and LGBT- and abortion-rights activist. This election culminates a 20-year effort on Seday’s part to win a seat on the commission. Her perseverence paid off this year.
Both Mogab and Seday have served on the Board of Governors of the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys and are frequent contributors to campaigns of Democrats.
Business and insurance interests arguably won only in St. Louis County, whose lawyers elected Debbie Champion. Her firm primarily represents insurance companies and other businesses. Her recent political contributions have gone mostly to Mark Smith, who unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination for Congress last year, but also to Republican Catherine Hanaway.
A common thread in all three contests, though, was gender politics. All three winners were recruited by the Women’s Lawyers Association of Greater St. Louis, which formally endorsed them, promoted them throughout their campaigns, and worked to get out the vote during the election period. Its efforts were encouraged by the Sue Shear Institute for Women in Public Life, a publicly funded organization based at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, which a WLA press release credits with providing early strategic advice for these campaigns. In addition, Stacey Newman, Executive Director of the Missouri Women’s Coalition, served as a campaign consultant to the three candidates and was particularly invaluable during the early stages of the Mogab campaign.
The WLA press release notes that the organization seeks “gender parity” on the judiciary in order to “reduce the severity and frequency of systemic gender discrimination and . . . improve the quality of the judiciary and the equality of justice for all litigants.”