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Group wants chief justice to step aside in Exxon case

MONTGOMERY (AP) — The leader of Alabama Voters Against Lawsuit Abuse said the state’s new chief justice should step aside from hearing Exxon Mobil’s appeal of the largest verdict in state history because of actions during her campaign that touched on the case.

Skip Tucker, executive director of AVALA, said Sue Bell Cobb made Exxon Mobil an issue in her campaign and indirectly received large campaign donations from one of the law-yers representing the state in its suit against the oil company.

“This case is about justice, and in this case, Sue Cobb is unfit to dispense it. We ask her to recuse,” Tucker said at a news conference Tuesday.

Cobb said through an aide that she could not respond because Alabama’s judicial rules prohibit judges from commenting on pending cases.

Exxon Mobil attorney Dave Boyd said the company will not ask Cobb to step aside when the Supreme Court hears arguments Feb. 6 on the company’s appeal.

of a $3.6 billion judgment won by the state conservation department.

“Exxon Mobil knew nothing about Mr. Tucker’s news conference today and does not agree with his position that the chief justice should recuse herself,” Boyd said.

In the suit, the state accused the oil company of intentionally underpaying royalties due from natural gas wells the company drilled in state-owned waters along the Alabama coast. The 2003 verdict was the largest in the United States that year and the largest ever in Alabama.

Tucker, whose business-oriented group fights large jury verdicts, called the size of the Exxon Mobil judgment “outrageous.”

Cobb defeated Republican incumbent Drayton Nabers on Nov. 7 to become the only Democrat on the nine-member Supreme Court and the state’s first female chief justice. During the campaign, she accused Nabers of receiving large donations from political action committees run by Exxon Mobil’s lobbyists, and she used the Exxon Mobil logo in her ad.

Tucker said there was never any evidence that Nabers or the lobbyists received campaign funds from the oil company.

On the other hand, Jere Beasely’s law firm, which is representing the state in the litigation, gave $496,000 to 22 political action committees, and campaign finance reports show those PACs made large contributions to Cobb’s campaign. It is impossible to tell exactly how much of the PAC money that went to Cobb originated with Beasley’s law firm, Tucker said.

Cobb should step aside, Tucker said, “in the interst of justice and fairness.”

Beasley said Tucker’s group “is representing the interests of Exxon in its attack news conference.”

“I am confident that the justices will decide this most important case on the merits and leave politics out of the courtroom,” he said.

Boyd, Exxon Mobil’s attorney, said, “We have every expectation that this case will be decided fairly based on the law.”

Nabers, Cobb’s predecessor, recused himself from the Exxon Mobil case because he had been involved in matters related to the litigation while serving as Gov. Riley’s state finance director in 2003-2004.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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