Federal judge nominee has history of bias against business, Democratic activism

Amanda Carey Contributor
Font Size:

On Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted in favor of President Obama’s nominee for the federal district judgeship in Rhode Island, John J. “Jack” McConnell Jr. The 11-7 vote fell along party lines, with all Republicans voting against McConnell except Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

McConnell’s nomination sparked heavy opposition — after the vote, Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas said he considers the nomination so objectionable that he may support a filibuster when it reaches the Senate floor.

McConnell not only prompted the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to publicly oppose a judicial nominee for the first time ever, but every Republican on the committee (except Graham, again) voted against him when the nomination was brought up last year. Of 69 original Obama nominees, only four got ratings of less than highly qualified from the American Bar Association (ABA).

McConnell was one of those four.

He has been described throughout his career as a political high-roller and glorified ambulance-chaser as he, along with his law firm Motley Rice, pursued cases that cost taxpayers and resulted in big financial payouts to the firm.

According to one Republican Capitol Hill staffer, McConnell’s legal theories were not supported by “logic or the law.”

McConnell built his personal wealth on tobacco litigation in the 1990s. Today, those cases still net him about $2.5 million a year. Then, his firm went to work using a “public nuisance” law to sue paint companies over lead paint even if it could not be proven that a company manufactured the damaged paint.

Of the lead paint lawsuits, a 2009 Wall Street Journal editorial said, “Mr. McConnell and his firm helped pioneer the practice of soliciting public officials to bring lawsuits in which private lawyers are paid a percentage of any judgment or settlement … such contingency-fee arrangements inevitably raise questions of pay to play.”

“The bottom line is we think he is woefully biased against business, according to his own words and actions, and he’s unfit to be a federal judge,” Bryan Quigley, spokesman for the U.S. Chamber’s Institute for Legal Reform, told The Daily Caller.

“His career as a litigator with Motely Rice, with his multi-million-dollar annual payout for the remainder of his career from the tobacco litigation, would put him in a strong conflict-of-interest position as a federal judge,” said Quigley. He added that the Chamber “is not necessarily in the business of publicly opposing federal judge nominees,” but “we felt we couldn’t be silent on this one.”

McConnell’s political donations and active fundraising for Democratic causes have raised suspicions among his detractors. According to press reports, McConnell and his wife have donated approximately $700,000 over the last two decades. In 2008, they gave more than $160,000 to Democratic candidates.

He has made significant contributions to Senators Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse, both Democrats from Rhode Island. Since 2001, McConnell has donated $13,200 to Reed, and gave $12,600 to Whitehouse from 2005 to 2006. Whitehouse and Reed were the two senators that recommended McConnell to President Obama.

McConnell’s donations to other currently serving Democratic senators total several thousand dollars. He gave $20,000 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and $83,000 to the Democratic National Convention. According to an analysis of the Providence Journal, among the 1,500 nominees to U.S. courts since 1988, McConnell is the top financial contributor to congressional and presidential campaigns.

“Political contributions in and of themselves don’t disqualify a judicial nominee,” Quigley told TheDC, “but McConnell has given hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years to one political party, a figure that dwarfs the average political contributions of other nominees.”

“These donations include some who sit on the Senate Judiciary committee charged once again with approving his nomination,” he added.

McConnell’s firm, Motley Rice also threw $7,700 over to Sen. Graham – the only Republican who supports the nomination. Kevin Bishop,  spokesperson for Graham, said the law firm’s contributions accounted for a tiny percentage of the $9.7 million raised from 2003 to 2008.

“Generally, the Senate has given respect to home state senators, working with the executive, when it comes to picking district court judges for their states,” Bishop told TheDC. “The Judiciary Committee has received letters of support for his nomination from both Republicans and Democrats in Rhode Island.”

In a statement regarding his vote, Graham said previous political activity within legal boundaries should not disqualify someone from a judgeship.

“Potential judges should not be required to refrain from engagement in the political process as private citizens, nor shrink from their responsibility as an advocate,” said Graham. “Mr. McConnell has explicitly rejected President Obama’s empathy standard and made it clear that he believes it is inappropriate for a judge to favor or disfavor any litigant.  Further, he has stated that it is never appropriate for judges to indulge their own values and policy preferences in interpreting the law.”