CHICAGO – Trial lawyers, doctors and business groups are pouring money into an increasingly nasty race for a seat on the Illinois Supreme Court, the latest flare-up in a long-running nationwide feud over whopping verdicts.
The campaign comes as tobacco giant Philip Morris (search) is appealing a judge's order to pay $10.1 billion in damages for misleading smokers. The state Supreme Court is due to take up the appeal next year, after the new justice is sworn in.
One TV ad in the southern Illinois district warns that "predatory trial lawyers" are driving away jobs and doctors, and "sharks in fancy suits are getting rich at our expense." The ad was paid for by the Illinois State Chamber of Commerce, a supporter of Republican candidate Lloyd Karmeier (search).
Trial lawyers scoff at those claims. Businesses simply "don't want to be responsible when their products hurt people and they don't want consumers to be able to sue them," said Bruce N. Cook, a leading Illinois trial lawyer.
The various interest groups are backing the candidate in the November election they think will see cases their way.
Business groups and doctors who claim juries and judges are running wild and awarding too much money in personal injury, malpractice and class-action lawsuits are funneling money to Karmeier, a trial-level judge.
Plaintiffs' attorneys, who can reap hefty contingency fees from such lawsuits, are contributing to Democrat Gordon Maag, an Illinois appeals court judge.
The race is widely expected to top the record $1.3 million spent on a 2002 Illinois Supreme Court race.
"The money is flowing and the mud is starting to fly," said Cindi Canary, director of the nonpartisan Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.
Similar battles have been raging in many other states.
In 2002, $29 million was spent on state Supreme Court races nationwide, the lion's share coming from trial lawyers and business groups.
Races in Alabama, Illinois, Mississippi and West Virginia have emerged as money magnets this year. Justice at Stake, a nonpartisan group, estimates $2.5 million went into Supreme Court primaries in Alabama. One of the big issues, along with whether the Ten Commandments can be displayed in public buildings, was tort reform.
Concerned about the role of special-interest money, North Carolina is trying public financing of judicial elections, and a new Illinois law requires independent groups that run ads in court campaigns to report where they get their money.
The Illinois race has led to allegations of dirty tricks.
Confidential memos were taken from the trash of Karmeier's campaign chairman and slipped to reporters. One memo warned Karmeier he might be accused of being supported by "fat cats." Maaghas said he had no role in taking the documents and doesn't know who did.
The election is taking place in a traditionally Democratic area that includes Madison County, across the Mississippi River from St. Louis. Business groups call the county "a judicial hellhole" where judges favor trial lawyers. The Philip Morris case was tried there.
Among other things, businesses and doctors want to see restrictions on personal injury suits, including caps on damages for pain and suffering.
Democrats hold a 5-2 majority on the court, which in 1997 declared unconstitutional a law to restrict personal injury damages. With the retirement of a Democrat, business groups and doctors are trying to reduce the Democrats' hold to 4-3.
"Business wants balance on the courts," said Doug Whitley, executive director of the Illinois State Chamber of Commerce. "We don't want to feel that it's extortion, a shakedown, a speed trap."