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Exxon Mobil ruling spurs Democrats to eye court seats

By Phillip Rawls
Associated Press Writer

MONTGOMERY — Alabama has developed a reputation for the nation's most expensive Supreme Court races during a 12-year battle that has changed the court from all Democratic to overwhelmingly Republican.

Now a decision by the court's Republican justices to throw out nearly all of a record $3.6 billion verdict against Exxon Mobil has underlined the fiercely partisan nature of the judicial system in Alabama.

"Justice, as we've seen, is partisan," University of Alabama political scientist William Stewart, a longtime observer of Alabama politics, said Tuesday.

Stewart said it's notable that some Democratic leaders had started advocating nonpartisan Supreme Court races when the number of Democrats on the Supreme Court was shrinking, but that talk subsided when they saw the Exxon Mobil decision as a way to win back Supreme Court seats. With the next Supreme Court election one year away, Democratic leaders immediately pointed to the verdict in a dispute over natural gas royalties as a compelling motivation for political change.

"It is time to replace the corporate board of Republican justices on the Supreme Court with Democratic jurists that understand Alabama's highest court is not a tool to protect corporate interests," said Joe Turnham, chairman of the Alabama Democratic Party.

In the view of Republicans, Alabama is at risk of returning to the days of huge verdicts, when the state was known nationally as a "judicial hellhole."

"Democrats long for the day when plaintiff trial lawyers ruled the Supreme Court and jackpot justice made Alabama a national joke," said Mike Hubbard, chairman of the Alabama Republican Party.

Alabama is one of eight states that elect their Supreme Court justices in partisan elections. The campaigns are as expensive and as tough as governors' races are in other states, with past races featuring divorce records and ads comparing a candidate to a skunk.

$3.6 billion verdict

In the order overturning the $3.6 billion verdict, the largest ever in Alabama, the court's eight Republican justices said the state failed to prove the oil company fraudulently underpaid natural gas royalties and cut the verdict to $52 million.

The reaction was very strong from the foreman of the jury that ruled against Exxon Mobil. Montgomery elementary school teacher Joey King said he was "totally shocked" by the Supreme Court's ruling and believes businesses' campaign contributions to justices had an impact.

"Money speaks to Republicans. That's why I'm a Democrat," he said Monday.

The Justice at Stake Campaign, a Washington-based group that has been tracking spending in judicial races since 1993, said Alabama is No. 1 in the nation through the 2006 election. Texas is second at $30 million.

The Exxon Mobil case was pending at the Supreme Court during last year's election, and it became a prominent issue. Democrat Sue Bell Cobb defeated Republican Chief Justice Drayton Nabers after running ads accusing him of taking large contributions from political action committees run by Exxon Mobil's Alabama lobbyists.

Democratic Supreme Court candidate Deborah Bell Paseur kicked off her campaign Tuesday standing in front of a supporter holding an "8-1" sign criticizing the Supreme Court's Exxon Mobil decision.

Jesse Rutledge, spokesman for Justice at Stake, said the Exxon Mobil case will motivate business groups and plaintiff lawyers to gear up for the one Supreme Court seat on next year's ballot, especially because the Republican incumbent is retiring.

"You are looking at what is likely to be another negative, vitriolic, expensive court campaign. This is likely to pour oil on the fire. No pun intended," he said.

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

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