Friday, April 24, 2009

WSJ Criticizes McConnell's Appointment to RI District Court

The Wall Street Journal writes:

"U.S. Senators recommend people for the federal bench all the time. So when trial attorney Jack McConnell was tapped last week for a seat on the U.S. District Court in Rhode Island by Senators Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse, the announcement received much less scrutiny than it deserves.

Mr. McConnell is a partner in the Providence office of Motley Rice, the giant plaintiffs firm that was hired by the state in 1999 to sue companies that legally manufactured lead paint decades ago. The person who hired Mr. McConnell to bring the suit on a contingency-fee basis is Mr. Whitehouse, who at the time was serving as Rhode Island's Attorney General.

Mr. McConnell also happens to be the state Democratic Party treasurer and a major political donor. In the 2000 election cycle, Motley Rice, which is based in South Carolina, was Rhode Island's largest political contributor, donating more than $500,000 to federal campaigns alone. Mr. McConnell and his wife have also personally donated thousands of dollars to the campaigns of Messrs. Whitehouse and Reed in the past decade.

Mr. McConnell and his firm helped pioneer the practice of soliciting public officials to bring lawsuits in which the private lawyers are paid a percentage of any judgment or settlement. The law firms front the costs of litigation and are compensated if the suit is successful. But such contingency-fee arrangements inevitably raise questions of pay to play. And private lawyers with state power and a financial stake in the outcome of a case can't be counted on to act in the interest of justice alone.

It happens that the Rhode Island lead paint suits ultimately failed. Last July, after nine years of litigation, the state Supreme Court threw out the jury verdict against the companies. But it looks as though Senator Whitehouse has found another way to pay Mr. McConnell for his services."

While the Journal points out some interesting facts, I take issue with the idea that lawyers hired on a contingent fee basis aren't capable of acting in the interests of "justice alone." All lawyers are supposed to act in their clients' interests (including public sector lawyers). The suggestion that lawyers on a contingency fee can't be trusted is rather offensive.

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