Illinois Supreme Court Justice Should Recuse Himself From Tobacco Case

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Illinois Supreme Court Justice Should Recuse Himself From Tobacco Case

Statement of Robert Weissman, President, Public Citizen

WASHINGTON - Note: The appellees in Price v. Philip Morris have filed a motion calling for Illinois Supreme Court Justice Lloyd Karmeier to recuse himself from the case. The request cites money allegedly spent by Philip Morris’ parent company in support of Karmeier’s retention election, funds that were channeled through a third-party organization and not transparent to the public, arguing that this funding requires recusal under the standard established by the U.S. Supreme Court in Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Co. The motion also cites statements Karmeier made to a newspaper that the appellees claim evidences bias or the appearance of bias. Public Citizen in 2004 filed an amicus brief in the case, which centered around the use by cigarette companies of terms such as “light” and “low tar.”

For the public to trust that its courts are fair and administer equal justice, they must believe that judges are unbiased. For our courts to work and operate with public confidence, judges who may be biased or appear to be biased in a particular case must recuse themselves. For this reason, Illinois Supreme Court Justice Lloyd Karmeier should recuse himself from the Philip Morris litigation.

The paper trail appears to show that Altria (the parent company of Philip Morris USA) contributed more than $700,000 to support the retention of Justice Karmeier – considerably more than half of all the money spent in support of Justice Karmeier’s 2014 retention election.

On its face, such a large expenditure, amounting to more than half of the spending on Justice Karmeier’s behalf, would make the case for recusal in major litigation involving Altria. The argument for recusal is further buttressed by Justice Karmeier’s public comments, which raise questions about his impartiality in the Philip Morris litigation.

Altria did not donate money directly to Justice Karmeier’s retention election campaign committee. Rather, it appears, the company made large contributions to the Republican State Leadership Committee, which then funneled monies on to an Illinois-specific independent expenditure committee, Republican State Leadership Committee – IE Committee (RSLC-IE).

The indirect nature of this funding makes it impossible to speak with certainty about Altria’s support of Justice Karmeier, but the paper trail makes it seem extremely likely that Altria’s reported donations to the Republican State Leadership Committee were intended and used to support Justice Karmeier’s retention election effort.

Indeed, the apparent indirect channeling of the funds to Justice Karmeier, and Altria’s apparent intention to keep its support of Justice Karmeier from public knowledge, makes the apparent significant and disproportionate influence of the expenditure all the worse. It deepens questions about Altria’s intent and the appearance of partiality created by the contributions.

Absent the presentation of some new information that explains away what the public record appears to show, Justice Karmeier should recuse himself from the Philip Morris case.

Across the United States, there has been a flood of money into judicial elections in the past two decades. To maintain a fair court system, it is plain that judicial elections should be carried out with public funding. States are free to adopt such solutions, but in the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, it is at best questionable whether they could maintain restrictions on outside spending. So long as they cannot, or do not, it is imperative that they at least require litigants to disclose their relevant election spending in advance of a court’s consideration of their case.

Read a news story about the controversy.

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Public Citizen is a national, nonprofit consumer advocacy organization founded in 1971 to represent consumer interests in Congress, the executive branch and the courts.

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