Trial lawyers are holding steady as one of the Democratic Party’s biggest sources of campaign contributions, providing a cushion for the party as it struggles to maintain control of Congress in the midterm elections.
Lawyers who represent plaintiffs in securities class actions, personal injury cases and consumer protection lawsuits have donated millions of dollars this election cycle to Democratic campaigns. At some law firms, they’re contributing even more to federal candidates than they did in either of the previous two election cycles, including the 2008 campaign when presidential hopefuls were after their money.
Houston-based Susman Godfrey, for example, has seen its lawyers contribute more than $523,000 to federal candidates and party committees since January 2009, according to U.S. Federal Election Commission (FEC) records. The overwhelming majority went to Democrats, and the total is more than double what the firm’s lawyers gave by this point before the 2006 midterms.
Lawyers at Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd, a San Diego-based securities class action firm, have contributed more than $314,000, up by almost half compared to the same point four years ago. Name partners Darren Robbins and Paul Geller have each given five-figure lump sums.
And at Wilmington, Del.-based Grant & Eisenhofer, lawyers can lay claim to $275,000 in donations, up about $46,000 from the presidential cycle.
Some of the firms, such as Robbins Geller, are benefiting from successful securities class actions, which can generate multibillion-dollar settlements. Others, such as Susman Godfrey, have made news recently as firms helping to lead litigation against Toyota Motor Corp. for allegations of sudden acceleration in its vehicles or against BP PLC for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
Plaintiffs’ firms have been Democratic stalwarts for decades, providing money at every level of government to keep their allies in office. This year, with some parts of the liberal base showing signs of apathy about the Nov. 2 elections, that support is as important as ever to the party.
“I’ve been as supportive as I have been in the past,” said H. Laddie Montague Jr., the president of Philadelphia-based Berger & Montague, where contributions are up 23% over a comparable period in the 2006 cycle. Montague said President Barack Obama has been a vast improvement over President George W. Bush. “What went before was catastrophic for the country, and in the world,” he said. “I don’t want to see a repeat of that, and I don’t find fault in what’s been done to date, as others might.”
Peter Kraus, a founding partner of Waters & Kraus in Dallas, said he’s motivated by the prolific spending of conservative non-profits that aren’t required to disclose their donors. Democrats, he said, are “getting outspent by outside interest groups, and they need all the help they can get from their traditional allies.”
Republicans, who often raise money from corporations that are defendants in civil suits, criticize what they say is the plaintiffs’ bar’s outsized influence.
“Their bread is buttered and buttered richly and thickly when Democrats are in charge. And when Democrats are not in charge, then tort reform becomes a real possibility,” said Darren McKinney, a spokesman for the American Tort Reform Association, a business-backed group that supports measures such as limits on jury damage awards.
Ray DeLorenzi, a spokesman for the American Association for Justice, the trial lawyers’ trade association, said in a statement that the “importance of holding corporations accountable has never been more apparent,” because of recent examples of corporate misconduct. “When the Chamber of Commerce is spending millions of dollars on behalf of anonymous multinational corporations, it certainly serves as a motivating factor for trial attorneys to support candidates that will take on these powerful interests and ensure people can receive justice in the courtroom,” he said.
This is the first election cycle for the association’s new chief executive, Linda Lipsen, who took over in May.
FIGHT OVER THE AGENDA
The outcome, though, will have an impact on the American Association for Justice’s agenda. If Republicans retake Congress, plaintiffs’ lawyers won’t have as many opportunities to push for changes to the federal pleading standard or limits on mandatory arbitration for consumers. They would also have to play more defense against efforts by business groups and defense lawyers to limit what they see as frivolous lawsuits. One unsuccessful proposal from the last time Republicans controlled Congress would have given judges greater leeway to sanction lawyers for improper pleadings.
Aside from legislation, the plaintiffs’ bar is hoping to see one of its own join the federal bench. Motley Rice partner John McConnell Jr., a frequent campaign contributor, has been nominated for U.S. district court in Rhode Island. He faces heated opposition from Republicans and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, in part because of his role in lead-paint litigation.
As with plaintiffs’ lawyers’ individual giving, the American Association for Justice’s own political action committee is poised to meet or exceed its past fundraising. It raised $2.5 million through Sept. 13 of this year, compared to $2.8 million for the full 2006 election cycle, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
The plaintiffs’ bar’s impact is larger than the federal data alone suggest. In Texas, a frequent battleground for liability issues, Steve Mostyn and his wife, Amber Anderson, of the Mostyn Law Firm have contributed more than $5 million to state Democrats and related groups, according to the Texas Ethics Commission. Similar efforts are playing out nationwide, in attorneys general races, battles to control state legislatures and other campaigns.
On the national level, lawyers’ contributions are helping to prop up Democratic campaigns that could be key to determining control of Congress. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) counts three plaintiffs’ firms among his top five contributors by employer, according to the Center for Responsive Politics: Weitz & Luxenberg of New York, Simmons Browder Gianaris Angelides & Barnerd of East Alton, Ill., and Girardi Keese of Los Angeles. The biggest donor to Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, an independent running for Senate, is plaintiffs’ firm Morgan & Morgan, based in Orlando, Fla. Susman Godfrey’s lawyers were among the top donors to Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) before he lost his primary.
President Barack Obama recently showed his appreciation. He attended a fundraiser on Aug. 9 at the Dallas home of Russell Budd, a name partner at the toxic tort firm Baron & Budd, thanking attendees for doing “so much not only to help support my campaign in 2008″ but also Democrats nationwide.
Democrats’ ties to lawyers have been occasional flashpoints this election. This month, National Review Online published a photograph of a Colorado billboard that is critical of Obama and includes a rat labeled as a trial lawyer. Ron Johnson, a Republican challenging Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), produced a video saying lawyers dominate the Senate and arguing that Washington needs fewer of them. Johnson is the chief executive of Pacur Inc., a plastics company.
David Ingram can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.