Republicans, conservatives accuse Senate Dems of ‘pay-for-play’ favor with Jack McConnell judicial nomination cloture vote

Matthew Boyle Investigative Reporter
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Former trial lawyer Jack McConnell’s judicial nomination for the U.S. district court of Rhode Island passed Senate cloture vote on Wednesday, 63-33, but many Republicans and conservative groups couldn’t be more vehemently opposed to it. The successful cloture vote ends debate on McConnell’s nomination, paving the way for a simple majority vote to confirm his appointment.

McConnell was first nominated in 2009 and Democrats passed his nomination through the Senate Judiciary Committee on near-party lines three times. Republicans blocked floor votes twice before, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, recently decided to try to get a floor vote via cloture.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce announced its opposition to McConnell’s nomination in May 2010, marking the first time the Chamber has ever publicly denounced a district court nominee. The Chamber points out concern with McConnell’s history as a trial lawyer. His private practice law firm represented the State of Rhode Island on two major cases, one against tobacco companies and another against lead paint companies, and benefited largely from both. Rhode Island and many other states won their lawsuits against tobacco companies, but McConnell’s law firm procured millions of dollars from the Rhode Island lawsuit instead of passing it onto states and taxpayers.

Rhode Island lost the lawsuit against lead paint companies. But, before the end of the lawsuit, one paint company, DuPont, settled with McConnell’s law firm. It’s unclear the amount McConnell’s firm received in the settlement, but DuPont made a donation to a Massachusetts hospital for the law firm in an amount McConnell had previously agreed to make himself.

The Chamber also questions McConnell’s low American Bar Association Rating. “For a practicing lawyer with 25 years of experience to obtain such a low rating speaks poorly of his legal abilities, and likely means that he generated negative comments from judges before whom he appeared and/or from lawyers who know him,” the Chamber of Commerce wrote. “Mr. McConnell’s ABA rating should come as no surprise given his past statements that raise serious question about whether he will follow precedent and the rule of law.”

National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Brian Walsh told The Daily Caller that McConnell has donated about $700,000 to Democratic party groups and organization and, “that money was the product of what would appear to be a long history of ‘pay-to-play dealings’ in courts around the country.” Walsh also said this nomination and cloture vote “appear[s] to be pay back from politicians like [Rhode Island Democratic Sen.] Sheldon Whitehouse that he has backed over the years.”

“Every Senate Democrat who votes in support of his nomination will have to explain to their constituents why they gave a lifetime appointment to someone of his very questionable caliber and qualifications,” Walsh said in an e-mail to TheDC.

Rhode Island GOP Chairman Ken McKay told TheDC that he’s requested documents and information regarding the DuPont settlement and McConnell’s contracts with Rhode Island’s Attorney General’s office, but has not received any response yet. “The voters have a right to know what went on here,” McKay said, adding that he thinks the Senate shouldn’t try to “ram through” this judicial appointment without presenting all the facts.

Given his history of ‘pay-for-play’ allegations, Republicans expect McConnell to practice judicial activism, or using his power as a judge to further an ideological agenda. In a Washington Times op-ed Wednesday morning, Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, questioned McConnell’s ability to remain fair and impartial.

“I do not believe that all parties who come before him would receive a fair and impartial trial,” Cornyn wrote. “Especially worrisome is his anti-business bias, summed up by his view that some businesses would only do the right thing ‘when they’re sued and forced to by a jury.’”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell echoed that charge in remarks on the Senate floor Wednesday.

“His legal career has been marked by a pervasive and persistent hostility to American job creators,” Mitch McConnell said. “This bias against one part of American society is fundamentally antithetical to the rule of law, and it has led him to take a series of troubling actions that show his unfitness for a lifetime position as a fair and impartial judicial officer.”