Prepared Statement of Ranking Member Chuck Grassley
Senate Committee on the Judiciary
Executive Business Meeting
Opening Remarks, Nomination of John J. McConnell
Thursday, March 31, 2011
During the 16 days we have been in session this month, we have confirmed seven more nominees to vacancies in the federal judiciary, bringing the total to 14 for this session of Congress. Ten of those confirmations were for seats designated judicial emergencies.
This year we have reported 23 nominees out of committee. We have held four hearings, having heard from 17 judicial nominees this year. In total, we have taken positive action on 34 of the 60 judicial nominations submitted to the Senate during this Congress. These actions demonstrate that I have worked cooperatively with the Chairman on judicial nominations and will continue to do so with consensus nominees.
There is no doubt that the nomination of John J. “Jack” McConnell to be United States District Judge for the District of Rhode Island is not a consensus nomination. Members of the Committee are well aware of the history of this nomination over the past year. Nevertheless, I want to spend some time reviewing my concerns with this nominee. I do so with the understanding that he enjoys the support of his home state senators. I have spoken with both senators about this nominee.
First, Mr. McConnell is an active partisan, perhaps more so than any other nominee recently before this committee. Mr. McConnell and his wife have donated at least $700,000 to elect Democrats (over $160,000 in 2008 alone). He has served as Treasurer of the Rhode Island Democratic State Committee. He is a member of Amnesty International USA, and has served as a Director at Planned Parenthood of Rhode Island. I would not argue that partisan political activity is disqualifying on its own. My concern is that Mr. McConnell is so steeped in political activity and ideology that it will be impossible for him to be an impartial jurist – even if he earnestly believes that he can.
I am concerned that his partisanship will influence his judicial philosophy. He has made a number of sharp partisan political statements, including one in which he indicated that only Democrats fight for “economic and social justice and opportunity for all.” He has called for a more “active government” and redistribution of wealth, and claimed that “health care should be a right of citizenship.” When Republican Governor Lincoln Almond kept the Rhode Island government open during a snowstorm in 1996, Mr. McConnell commented to the press that the decision was “typical of the cold-hearted Republican attitude of disregarding workers’ needs.”
He went on to argue against the governor’s appeal to the cost efficiency of keeping agencies open by saying that “[w]e could bring child labor back, which would be cheaper, too.”
Mr. McConnell has often portrayed his mass tort cases as movements against societal injustices. He has said that these cases represent “wrongs that need to be righted and that is how I see the law.” He has said that he is “an emotional person about injustice at any level – personal, societal, global.” These statements indicate an activist viewpoint. This is not what we want in a federal judge.
Second, Mr. McConnell has a view of the law that I believe is outside the mainstream of legal thought. Much of Mr. McConnell’s career has been devoted to bringing some of the most controversial mass tort litigation of recent years. He has pursued the manufacturers of asbestos, tobacco, and lead paint, whose actions he believes to be “unjust.” In bringing many of these cases, Mr. McConnell has often stretched legal argument beyond its breaking point. An example is the “public nuisance” theory he pursued in the Rhode Island lead paint case. Well-respected attorneys have said Mr. McConnell’s theory “just [did not] mesh with centuries of Anglo-American law” and a former attorney general called the lead-paint cases “a lawsuit in search of a legal theory.”
The Rhode Island Supreme Court unanimously ruled against him in State v. Lead Industries Associates, Inc. In a well-reasoned opinion, the court found that there was no set of facts that he could have proven to establish that the defendants were liable in public nuisance.
Mr. McConnell’s reaction to that opinion illustrates my third major concern – that he lacks appropriate judicial temperament. Although the opinion was based firmly in the law, Mr. McConnell saw fit to publicly and harshly criticize the court’s decision in a Providence Journal editorial. But his criticism made little reference to points of law. Rather, his major complaint was simply that, in his view, “justice was not served.” His op-ed lambasted the court for “let[ting] wrongdoers off the hook.” Not only were these statements intemperate, even for an advocate, but they reflect a results-oriented view of judging. Mr. McConnell did not focus on the court’s analysis or argue that it wrongly applied the law. He argued that the “wrongdoers” weren’t punished. In other words, the result didn’t fit with his notion of justice, so it was the wrong result.
Mr. McConnell was also deeply involved in state lawsuits against tobacco companies. However, beyond litigation, he has shown an open hostility to tobacco companies. He told the press in 1999 that he would “like Congress to put the Cigarette makers out of business.” He has even gone so far as to compare people who opposed smoking bans in restaurants to the supporters of racial segregation, saying “some people might like having all-white restaurants so they don’t have to sit with blacks, but we don’t allow it.”
A fourth concern relates to the manner in which Mr. McConnell conducts his business. I am not suggesting illegal or unethical behavior, but it is a bit unseemly. He and his firm, Motley Rice, have often brought these controversial mass tort litigations cases while representing state attorneys general on no-bid contingency fee contracts. According to an April 24, 2009 Wall Street Journal editorial,
“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. 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.”
There are numerous examples of campaign contributions by Mr. McConnell and/or his wife in states where he or his firm was conducting or soliciting litigation. These include Rhode Island, Ohio, Washington, Vermont, and North Dakota.
In another instance, as part of a settlement in the Rhode Island lead paint case, DuPont was to pay $2.5 million to the International Mesothelioma Program at a Boston hospital, which is run by a former Motley Rice expert asbestos witness, Dr. David J. Sugarbaker. According to press reports, the payment was intended to satisfy a $3 million pledge previously made by Motley Rice to Dr. Sugarbaker to secure a seat on the Executive Advisory Board of the program.
My problem with this is the way the facts have dribbled out and the spin that Mr. McConnell has tried to put on this payment. Although both Rhode Island and DuPont claimed that the agreement was not a legal settlement, the agreement involved a commitment by DuPont to contribute over $12 million to charity and a commitment by the state of Rhode Island to dismiss the case against DuPont. DuPont refused to pay any attorneys’ fees because they were disputing the permissibility of the state’s use of private counsel on a no-bid contingency-fee contract. Nonetheless, DuPont agreed to make a sizeable donation to charity to settle the case.
In my view, the donation to the Boston hospital is highly suspect. Settlement money that was supposed to help reduce lead poisoning in Rhode Island in effect was diverted to offset a debt of Mr. McConnell’s law firm. The chairman of the Rhode Island Republican party described the problem as follows: “McConnell’s law firm had a $3 million obligation to a Boston hospital, and so as part of the settlement, $2.5 million of that obligation was paid by DuPont.
Mr. McConnell does not dispute this characterization of the $2.5 million payment. Despite claims by Attorney General Lynch that the payment would not satisfy Motley Rice’s obligation to the hospital, he said “I don’t see why it shouldn’t, and I don’t see anything nefarious or wrong with that.” The controversy regarding the settlement intensified when attorneys from another firm who had worked on the case on a contingency fee basis disputed the payment, claiming it was a “legal fee” that they were not being allowed to share in.
Fifth, I am concerned that Mr. McConnell has approached this confirmation process with either a lack of diligence, or a lack of candor. I am troubled by the instances where this committee was not provided with full and complete information.
For example, lead paint manufacturer Sherwin Williams has sued his law firm and unknown John Doe defendants. We don’t know if Mr. McConnell will end up being a named defendant, at present it appears he has not been named in the suit. The lawsuit alleges that Mr. McConnell’s law firm obtained possession of privileged documents that were stolen from Sherwin Williams.
Mr. McConnell was asked about these documents in Questions for the Record. Mr. McConnell told the committee that he saw the documents only “briefly” and was not familiar with them “in any fashion.” He told the committee that had no reason to believe he was an unidentified defendant in the lawsuit, and had no involvement beyond assisting his firm’s counsel for defense of the lawsuit.
However, after he submitted his answers to the committee, Mr. McConnell was deposed as a witness in the Ohio case. In his sworn testimony, he admitted that he was the first attorney to review the documents in question. He testified that he drafted a newspaper editorial that cited information that appeared to come from the documents. And he admitted that portions of the documents were incorporated into a brief filed under his signature.
In another instance, I asked in written questions the degree of awareness or notification that he or his law firm had regarding rallies that were held outside or near the Superior Court in Providence during the lead-paint trials in September 2002. He replied “None.” However, there is email traffic that indicates Mr. McConnell was, in fact, aware of the demonstrations. This email was produced in the lead-paint litigation as part of Sherwin Williams’s motion for a new trial. In other words, Mr. McConnell and his firm had this in their possession when he was asked about it by the committee.
Inconsistent answers were provided with regard to Mr. McConnell’s relationship with the ACLU as well. In response to the question “Did you, in fact, represent the ACLU in the matter?” Mr. McConnell said “I entered an appearance as counsel.” Yet in response to another question regarding any matters in which he provided legal services to the ACLU or any affiliate thereof, he replied, “I have never provided legal services to the ACLU or any affiliate thereof.” I find this answer confusing at best.
These types of responses indicate, at a minimum, a careless approach in his response to the legitimate inquiries of this committee. They could also be viewed as indicating a lack of candor. Either way, they do not reflect the standard we should expect from an individual who seeks confirmation to the federal judiciary.
These concerns lead me to believe this nominee is not qualified to serve as a United States District Judge. Finally, I would note Mr. McConnell received a low rating from the ABA – a rating of substantial majority qualified, minority not qualified.
My concerns are shared by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and I take their views very seriously because the chamber only rarely takes positions on judicial nominations. In a letter to this committee, the chamber wrote:
“Mr. McConnell’s actions during his career as a personal injury lawyer and past statements demonstrate his disregard for the rule of law, an activist judicial philosophy and obvious bias against businesses.”
For the reasons I have articulated – (1) his active partisanship which I believe he will carry with him into the judiciary; (2) his legal theories being outside the mainstream; (3) his lack of judicial temperament; (4) his questionable business practices; and (5) his lack of candor with the committee – and other concerns which I have not expressed today, I shall oppose this nomination.
I ask unanimous consent to insert into the record the letters from the Chamber of Commerce.