Rhode Island federal district court nominee John J. “Jack” McConnell Jr. is due for a vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee today. His nomination should be rejected due to ethical questions about his record.
In addition to being accomplished at the dark arts of ambulance chasing, Mr. McConnell is a political high roller. In the past two decades, he and his wife donated $700,000 to Democratic Party groups and candidates. He can afford to bankroll political campaigns. For 11 years, he has received between $2 million and $3 million annually in proceeds from tobacco litigation that netted lawyers exorbitant sums while leaving little for most individual claimants. Those payments, now at least $2.5 million per year, will continue through 2024. For a single attorney to gain well over $50 million from a case supposedly filed on behalf of taxpayers exposes the problems with jackpot justice.
Mr. McConnell also was an avid litigant in asbestos-related cases - a category of lawsuits since brought into major disrepute because of widespread fraud. His most infamous activities, though, involved dubious claims brought against lead-paint manufacturers. The suits pushed a bogus theory that companies should be held liable for damages even if nobody could show they made the particular paint that caused the harm. Rhode Island taxpayers were left responsible for $242,000 in legal fees when the state Supreme Court rejected the lawsuit. The Providence Journal called the lawyers’ theory a “ludicrous interpretation of nuisance law … [which] violated basic precepts of law crucial to a just society.”
Mr. McConnell has been questioned over two discrepancies in his accounts of those lead-paint suits. First, he claimed his firm accepted no compensation for its work on the cases because it directed the proceeds of a settlement to a hospital charity. It just so happened, though, to be a charity to which his firm already had pledged millions. In effect, then, the $2.5 million in settlement money got the firm off the hook for what it owed. Offsetting debts is as much a payment as putting money in bank accounts.
Critics have focused on a case involving documents allegedly stolen from paint company Sherwin-Williams which ended up at Mr. McConnell’s firm. Mr. McConnell’s testimony to the Judiciary Committee about his familiarity with the documents appears to contradict his testimony in a subsequent court deposition. Perhaps he just engaged in lawyerly hair-splitting. Either way, this raft of controversies should be enough to keep this big-ticket Democrat donor off the federal bench. The unanswered question is whether there are any standards left that can prevent a party crony from getting a judge’s robe.