I previously posted about the nomination of John J. “Jack” McConnell, Jr. to the federal district court in Rhode Island.
The Senate Judiciary Committee is set to vote today. The Providence Journal sums up the controversy over McConnell, a mass-tort lawyer who donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Democrats, including the two Rhode Island Senators who nominated him and other Senators who will vote on the nomination:
A major business group has stepped up its opposition to President Obama’s nomination of John J. McConnell Jr. to the U.S. District Court in Rhode Island, calling him “unfit to serve this lifetime appointment to the federal bench.”
On the eve of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s debate on the McConnell nomination, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce alerted senators that their votes on whether to seat him could become part of the organization’s influential scorecard on members of Congress.
“Mr. McConnell’s actions during his career as a personal injury lawyer and past statements demonstrate his disregard for the rule of law, an activist judicial philosophy and obvious bias against businesses,” R. Bruce Josten, the Chamber’s chief lobbyist, said in a letter Tuesday to committee members that was released Wednesday morning….
The consideration of McConnell’s nomination is playing out against a partisan backdrop. The Providence lawyer, 51, is a longtime state Democratic official, a major contributor to the party and a leading plaintiffs’ lawyer. He has given more than $432,000 to federal election campaigns over the years, including those of Whitehouse and Jack Reed. That appears to make him the top donor to federal campaigns among the nearly 1,500 nominees to U.S. courts since 1988. Only three other nominees during those years appear to have given as much as $100,000, according to a Providence Journal analysis of federal contributions. McConnell is also a major Rhode Island philanthropist.
McConnell’s law firm has refused to disclose records requested by the Ocean State Policy Research Institute regarding whether the firm improperly allocated settlement monies in a lead paint lawsuit to pay off the firm’s charitable pledge to a hospital (see my prior post). The details of the document request and the need for the documents are set forth in a letter OSPRI sent to the Judiciary Committee yesterday.
The Republican Party in Rhode Island has questioned the circumstances of the payment to McConnell’s firm:
[T]he chairman of the Rhode Island State Republican Party, Giovanni D. Cicione, has asked the Rhode Island Bar Association to launch an inquiry into a settlement that McConnell’s firm negotiated with one of the corporations involved in the state’s long-running lawsuit against manufacturers of lead paint. Cicione questioned the propriety of the transfer of a portion of that settlement to a Boston hospital, as a charitable gift. McConnell has told the Judiciary Committee that the gift was proper.
The vote is set for this morning. There is no question that the nomination will get out of committee given the Democratic majority. What if anything Republicans will do to stop the nomination after that point remains to be seen.
Update: At the hearing this morning, Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) spoke at length in opposition to the nomination. Sessions mentioned numerous instances of McConnell and his firm rewarding politicians with campaign contributions after receiving state business, and how McConnell publicly rebuked the Rhode Island Supreme Court in very unflattering terms after the Court threw out McConnell’s landmark lead paint lawsuit (which was started when Whitehouse was Attorney General).
In defense of McConnell, Sheldon Whitehouse accused opponents of McConnell of attempting to “smear” McConnell. Whitehouse, as usual, changed the subject and engaged in a lengthy lecture making it seem as if anyone who opposed McConnell was against the jury system and our entire system of justice.
John Cornyn (R-Tx) stated that he opposed the nomination, taking Whitehouse to task (my paraphrase) because while it was not necessary to be pro-business to get on the bench, it was necessary not to be anti-business. Cornyn mentioned how McConnell repeatedly over the years has made inflammatory political statements, including several examples, and specifically mentioned the OSPRI records request.
The final vote was 13-6 in favor. Since there are 7 Republicans on the Committee, one of them voted yes, but I could not hear the rollcall, so I’ll update when I get the vote breakdown. (Added: Lindsay Graham (R-SC) voted in favor>)
Update No. 2: In case the issue of the donation to the hospital is not clear, here is the scenario:
McConnell’s firm settled a RI lead paint case for the State of RI with a defendant who would not settle if McConnell’s firm received any part of the settlement. So McConnell’s firm waived any fee, and the settlement agreement provided for a donation to be made to a hospital in Massachusetts in lieu of McConnell’s fee. But the donation then was applied by the hospital to a debt owed by McConnell’s firm (based on a prior pledge by the firm), so that the settlement monies did go for the benefit McConnell’s firm, contrary to the intent of the settlement. If this is in fact what happened, the settling defendant could contend that by failing to disclose that the donation would be used to extinguish a debt owed by McConnell’s firm, the defendant was defrauded into entering into the settlement. (Separately, other defendants continued to fight the case, and it was thrown out by the RI Supreme Court.)
This is why the OSPRI document request under the RI Open Records law is so important, because it would provide the documentation to prove or disprove potentially serious allegations involving McConnell’s conduct.
I’m not prepared yet to conclude that McConnell did anything wrong, but there certainly are enough questions that the nomination should not go to a vote until the matter is thoroughly vetted.
Will Obama Really Fight For This Judicial Nominee?
How Much Does A Federal Judgeship Cost? $432,000
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