- The Washington Times
Thursday, November 14, 2019

NEW ORLEANS |Louisiana voters have more to face Saturday than electing their next governor. In the state Supreme Court district around New Orleans, they also may determine the tenor of the state’s judiciary for years to come.

A powerful coterie of trial lawyers has put millions of dollars not only behind incumbent Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards but also bids by judges to advance to the Louisiana Supreme Court.

The lawyers and Mr. Edwards are engaged in an effort to pin the blame on the energy industry for Louisiana’s eroding coast and, in the process, wring from the companies billions of dollars on the order of the tobacco settlement and the BP oil spill. The coastal lawsuits, coupled with legacy lawsuits against the industry for alleged prior damage to land, have driven the energy industry away from Louisiana, resulting in a loss of jobs and income, according to its defenders.

In Saturday’s election, the law firms that represent the half-dozen parishes filing suit have put nearly $1 million into PACs backing Republican appeals court Judge Hans Liljeberg’s campaign for the 1st District seat on the Louisiana Supreme Court.

That spending comes after millions more were spent by the same lawyers in successful campaigns to get two other justices on the Supreme Court, which means if Mr. Liljeberg defeats Republican appeals court Judge Will Crain on Nov. 16, the firms will have bankrolled three of the court’s seven justices.

“The tenor has changed in recent judicial election,” a state appeals court noted this year. “Now, special interest groups are pouring large sums of money into judicial campaigns, especially on the Supreme Court and appellate level, hoping that the candidate they are backing will side with their particular philosophy when deciding cases and issues before them.”

Business groups oppose Judge Liljeberg and have endorsed Judge Crain, whose campaign has raised more than $600,000 partly through the maximum $10,000 contributions made by Chevron and other players.

Jeannette Knoll, recently retired from the state Supreme Court, has gone on record declaring the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry as the most forceful taskmaster of all political contributors.

On the other hand, while Judge Liljeberg’s big money has come almost exclusively from trial lawyers, Judge Crain’s campaign finance sheets reflect contributions from a wide array of businesses. And unlike the Citizens Fighting Crime PAC, which is focused on Judge Liljeberg’s election, the business association’s PACs are backing numerous candidates.

“Make no mistake, this race is critical for Louisiana’s economy and judicial system as a whole,” association President and CEO Stephen Waguespack told The Washington Times. “What do our members look for? A judge who will be an independent and fair jurist, who will fairly and evenly apply the law rather than legislating from the bench.”

Judge Liljeberg insists his career reflects precisely the jurist described by Mr. Waguespack and that the big money flowing his way from the trial lawyers would not sway him.

“I have about 20 years of professional experience and never — not once — have I allowed campaign finance to influence my decisions,” Judge Liljeberg said.

While he agreed Louisiana voters may look askance at the process, and that the appearance of an impartial judiciary is important for the state’s economic vitality, Judge Liljeberg challenged anyone to find a decision he’s made rooted in favor of his campaign contributors.

“I have a campaign history of 17 years and I have done the right thing on the bench unwaveringly,” he told The Washington Times.

Nevertheless, state Supreme Court justices have been forcibly recused from oil and gas cases in recent years. Twice, Justice Jefferson D. Hughes III, a Republican elected with trial lawyers support in 2012, was recused on grounds he was beholden to the plaintiffs’ bar, and Justice Knoll was recused from another case because of her husband’s work as a plaintiff’s attorney in legacy lawsuits.

John Carmouche, the leader of the coastal lawsuit attorneys and a name partner at the only firm representing all six parish plaintiffs, recently told The Advocate newspaper his support of Judge Liljeberg had nothing to do with the coastal lawsuits and was rooted instead in concern for his family and law and order.

The money behind Judge Liljeberg has followed a winding path. Various PACs have been established by Mr. Carmouche over the years, with the chief 2019 representations being Citizens Fighting Crime PAC and the LA Republican Judiciary PAC.

The former in particular is flush with cash from lawyers, with Talbot, Carmouche and Marcello pitching in another $235,000 last Friday, records show. That brings the total the firm has contributed to Citizens Fighting Crime PAC to $445,000 this year.

All told, coastal lawsuits have been lodged against 98 oil and gas companies. The companies are charged with damaging the coast during decades of digging canals and exploration, operations the plaintiffs say were conducted under a lenient regulatory eye and that contributed to the perpetual erosion of Louisiana’s watery southern border.

Another firm heavily invested in the suits, Cossich, Cossich, Parsiola & Taylor, which represents half the parishes involved, has given $50,000 this year to Citizens Fighting Crime PAC, records show. Plus, another $150,000 that firm put into an earlier PAC, Restore Our Coast, was transferred to the Citizens Fighting Crime PAC on Oct. 31, according to campaign finance reports.

Restore Our Coast PAC has raised almost $750,000 from coastal parish lawsuit firms and has given $300,000 of it to Citizens Fighting Crime, records show.

The Restore Our Coast PAC was a big backer of Supreme Court Justice Jimmy Genovese, into whose 2016 campaign trial lawyers poured close to $1 million, according to campaign finance reports.

The money web is particularly significant because, at the moment, the lawsuits are in state courts while the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals weighs an appeal of a federal district court ruling that tossed the litigation out of federal courts and back to Louisiana’s.

In addition, the new makeup on the court could signal a reconsideration of a 4-3 “subsequent purchaser” decision in 2011 that somewhat curbed the glut of legacy lawsuits in Louisiana.

Thus, the money being showered on Judge Liljeberg and, previously, state Supreme Court Justices Genovese and Hughes, is only part of the law firms’ spending, which also includes tens of thousands more in the campaigns of judges at various levels in the Louisiana court system.

In the closing days, the money has produced some nasty campaigning.

For instance, last week the LA Republican Judiciary PAC, the smaller of the two backing Judge Liljeberg, sent out a flier accusing Judge Crain of being a “Republican in name only,” under a blaring headline, “Reject Liberal Judges.”

The flier also hit Mr. Crain for spending more than $32,000 on black neighborhood canvassers pushing a ticket that includes Mr. Edwards and Judge Crain.

“Will Crain says he’s a Republican — but why is he playing Democrat politics?” the flier asked, including four snapshots of black people involved in Judge Crain’s campaigning.

Mr. Edwards moved aggressively against the oil and gas industry almost immediately upon taking office. In January 2016, he summoned the leaders of two energy sector groups to Baton Rouge where he demanded they fork over billions to fund the state’s coastal replacement plan or face expensive legal battles.

Then, he sent a letter to those coastal parishes that had not filed suit pushing them into doing so, all steps that entailed the hiring of Talbot, Carmouche and a handful of other lawyers.

“[I] encourage you to consult with private counsel and file such a suit in which [Natural Resources] Secretary Thomas Harris will then intervene,” Mr. Edwards wrote. “Should you not do so within thirty (30) days of the date of this letter, Secretary Harris will do so.”

In September, Freeport-McMoRan, an energy and mining company whose departure left New Orleans home to no company in the Fortune 500, settled the coastal lawsuits for the widely reported figure of $100 million. Mr. Edwards and many trial lawyers have urged the nearly 100 defendants remaining to pursue a similar strategy.

But the complicated formulas contained in Freeport-McMoRan settlement mean it is unlikely to pay $100 million in the end, and the Louisiana Oil and Gas Association has vowed to fight what it labels a bare-knuckled extortion effort.

“There’s a reason Louisiana is known as a judicial hellhole, and this breathtaking spending certainly contributes to that perception,” said association President Gifford Briggs. “Ultimately, it undermines the appearance of impartial, even-handed decision-making based on a fair reading of the law in our state courts.”

What is at stake Saturday is a legal environment in a state infamous for backroom deals and struggling for its economy keep pace with neighboring states. “Louisiana’s current Supreme Court race is critical and could shape the direction of the court for decades,” said Lana Venable, executive director of Louisiana Lawsuit Abuse Watch, a tort reform group.

“Instances of influence peddling and cronyism, along with the troubling lack of transparency in the way Louisiana’s judiciary handles allegations of misconduct, have contributed to our longstanding reputation for judicial unfairness,” she added. “This type of conduct has eroded the public’s trust in the state’s judiciary and discourages business large and small from investing in and creating new jobs for Louisiana’s struggling economy.”

• James Varney can be reached at jvarney@washingtontimes.com.

Copyright © 2023 The Washington Times, LLC.