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Wednesday, November 7, 2007

The Serious Implications of Exxon Ruling

The fallout from the ExxonMobil ruling continues to build, and hopefully it will be a key step in returning some sense of balance to the Alabama Supreme Court. Maybe it will help ensure that someday the court actually will follow the law.

The court's ruling last week to throw out $3.5 billion in punitive damages the state was to receive from ExxonMobil has enraged many Democrats and moderates. The 8-1 vote was along party lines, with the lone dissent coming from the court's only Democrat, Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb.

Experts are saying that the ruling should make Alabama judicial races, already among the most expensive in the nation, even more intense. William Stewart, political scientist at the University of Alabama, said the decision shows that "justice is partisan."

And Lauderdale County District Judge Deborah Bell Paseur became the first Democrat to announce that she is running for the seat that will be vacated by the retirement of Republican Harold See. In announcing her candidacy, Paseur noted the Exxon ruling and the "perception that justice is for sale." She also said she was troubled that the vote fell strictly along party lines.

Stay tuned here at Legal Schnauzer for much more about the ExxonMobil ruling. The decision is 125 pages long, so it takes a while to digest. And much has been written in the mainstream press about the case.

The ruling has generated a fair amount of outrage, but my initial research indicates the public might not fully realize just how unlawful the ruling was. It's one thing for a court to make an unpopular decision, one that generates high emotions from certain quarters. And it's one thing for a court to apparently favor business interests over the interests of average citizens. Those things aren't good, but they might not rise to the level of unlawful behavior.

But it's another thing for a court to take money from business interests and then intentionally rule in a way that is contrary to the facts and the law, to not even use the proper standard for appellate review. My early research indicates that the eight Republicans on the Alabama Supreme Court violated their oath to uphold the law.

I want to research this matter before coming to conclusions. But my initial reaction is that this ruling is far worse, and has far more serious implications, than the public might imagine at the moment.

Just keep this in mind: Next door in Mississippi, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Diaz was indicted on federal corruption charges for allegedly taking financial favors from attorney Paul Minor and then ruling in Minor's favor. The case against Diaz proved to be preposterously weak, and he was acquitted. But that case shows that Supreme Court justices are not immune from prosecutions for federal crimes.

Of course, the Bush Justice Department won't do anything about the GOPers who dominate Alabama's Supreme Court. But perhaps, come 2008, we will have Democrats in charge of the Justice Department. What then? Will they care to examine the behavior of Alabama's justices in the Exxon case?

Does the Exxon ruling rise to a level to match, or even exceed, the charges against Diaz? That's a question all Alabamians should be asking themselves. And we will ask it here at Legal Schnauzer.

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