Watch out Delaware; we're chasing them out of Illinois

The Madison County Record Jul. 10, 2005, 11:26am

One of the most active asbestos litigation firms in Illinois, Simmons Cooper of Madison County, apparently is shifting much of its asbestos practice -- and some of its political involvement -- to Delaware amid repeated indications that the judicial environment in Madison County is changing for the better.

In the past four Harris polls assessing state liability systems, Delaware has topped the rankings at number one. Which is why many eyebrows raised at Friday's news that SimmonsCooper is moving part of its litigation to Delaware.

According to the Madison County Record, clerks at the New Castle County Superior Court, in Wilmington, Delaware, are working "working nights and weekends to keep up" with a deluge of asbestos lawsuit filings.

Why would SimmonsCooper, a firm built around the Madison County asbestos docket, bring its asbestos filings to Delaware, a state that prides itself as a business-friendly state? The Illinois Civil Justice League has learned SimmonsCooper is doing more than just filing lawsuits in oldest American court jurisdiction; the firm is also investing in the political scene in Delaware.

After investing more than a million dollars on judicial campaigns in Madison County, SimmonsCooper and several other high-profile plaintiffs firms donated the maximum contributions allowed under Delaware's campaign finance system to Governor Ruth Ann Minner.

An ICJL examination of Delaware campaign finance records revealed twenty-four contributions at the maximum level of $1,200 made to Minner's campaign by top asbestos and plaintiffs firms, a majority made in the three weeks prior to the November 2004 election.

The contributors include six SimmonsCooper attorneys and several of their spouses, legendary trial lawyer Richard "Dickie" Scruggs, and California attorney Peter McNulty.

Thousands more came from the Beasley Allen firm, the Sacks Weston firm, Gray Weiss & White, and the Langston Law Firm. While the total amount ($31,200) is not the eye-popping amount that trial lawyers spent on the failed Maag campaign, it represents a large sum of out-of-state contributions into the political system in Delaware, where strict campaign finance laws keep the totals small in comparison to Illinois.

What possible motivations would SimmonsCooper - and other trial lawyers - have in Governor Minner? The answer is obvious. In Delaware, the Governor holds complete control over judicial vacancies.

The Delaware Supreme Court has five members, appointed to 12-year terms. The entire Superior court system of Delaware contains only 19 judges, equal to the number of judges in Madison County. Governor Minner recently appointed a new Supreme Court justice and Chief Superior Court judge in 2004.

Even more curious is the local Delaware firm reported to be enabling the litigation on behalf of SimmonsCooper. The Madison County Record reports that the local firm Bifferato, Gentilotti and Biden is filing the asbestos suits.

The youngest partner in the firm, 36-year-old Joseph R. "Beau" Biden III, is Senator Joe Biden's son. Senator Biden is a leading opponent of the Fairness in Asbestos Injury Resolution (FAIR) reform proposal.

The younger Biden is also rumored to be the next candidate for Attorney General in Delaware. Carl Schnee, the Democrat candidate that lost to incumbent Attorney General M. Jane Brady in 2002, is also a member of Bifferato, Gentilotti & Biden.

The Delaware Political Grapevine reports that Schnee just returned to the firm after spending six months serving as interim state courts administrator. Schnee is a former law partner of Supreme Court Justice Myron T. Steele, whom Governor Minner just recently elevated to Chief Justice.

It's unthinkable that SimmonsCooper could be targeting the business-friendly state of Delaware, but they have taken a big interest in Delaware politics in only the past eight months.

Thousands of dollars of contributions to support a Governor who has recently appointed the chief judges of both the Supreme and Superior courts. A new partnership with the law firm of the Senator Joe Biden's son, who wants to be the next Attorney General. Cozy connections within the firm, including the most recent administrator of the state's court system.

The Delaware courts distinguish themselves as the nation's first state judiciary. Why is Delaware the first jurisdiction that SimmonsCooper is looking towards after Madison County?

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