Four Illinois Supreme Court Justices Asked to Withdraw from avHearing Due to Political Contributions

12/15/2008 | Legal Malpractice

As reported in the Chicago Sun Times:

Four Illinois Supreme Court justices have been asked to withdraw from hearing an appeal of a legal-malpractice case against Corboy & Demetrio, one of the nation's top personal-injury firms, because the justices have gotten political contributions from the Chicago firm's attorneys.

The case involves a hotly contested case alleging that Corboy lawyers mishandled a lawsuit brought on behalf of the family of a Georgia woman who was killed and her two daughters who were injured in a car crash in 1995.

The motion seeking the recusal of Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Fitzgerald and Justices Anne Burke, Charles Freeman and Robert Thomas comes just after the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear arguments in a West Virginia case testing whether elected judges can take part in cases involving campaign contributors.

Because there are seven justices on the Illinois court, the motion sets up the possibility that, should the justices step aside, there would be only three justices left to hear the case -- rendering an appeal meaningless. The Illinois Constitution requires four votes for any Supreme Court ruling to be official, and the constitution has no provision for appointing interim justices should a justice withdraw.

Such a dilemma would be "absurd," attorney Charles Boyle noted in his motion.

The original lawsuit alleged that Corboy lawyer G. Grant Dixon III, who is no longer with the firm, and Robert Bingle, the firm's managing partner, failed to preserve the damaged vehicle and failed to investigate whether the wreck was the result of a manufacturing defect.

The Corboy firm admitted that the car-crash suit was dismissed because the firm failed to follow a court order but denied all other allegations against the firm. A judgment of $100,000 was entered against the law firm, and all other counts of the lawsuit were denied.

In a motion filed Nov. 24, Boyle asked the Illinois Supreme Court for permission to review the lower court's rulings and asked the four justices to step aside from hearing his petition.

The motion states that some members of the Corboy firm and two of the firm's experts in the car crash case have donated $52,000 to Fitzgerald, $33,000 to Thomas and $30,000 to Freeman. It says that while Burke has received $1,500 in contributions, the firm has donated $24,000 to her husband, Ald. Edward Burke (14th).

While federal judges must disqualify themselves from any case in which they have any personal or financial interest, states generally have no specific criteria for campaign contributions.

In the West Virginia case, Justice Brent Benjamin won election after the chief executive of the Massey coal company contributed $3 million to his campaign and raised half a million more -- amounting to 60 percent of the justice's campaign funds. After the election, Benjamin twice cast the deciding vote to set aside a $50 million judgment against the coal company. (Massey Coal has its own problems and its own legal malpractice case against a Kentucky law firm.)

Attorney Michael Reagan, representing the Corboy firm in the case, said the amounts in the Illinois case are "ordinary campaign contributions" that are a "fact of life in a democracy."

Maurice Possley is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who recently left the Chicago Tribune. He worked for the Chicago Sun-Times from 1978 to 1984.