Not too long ago we read a non-drug/device decision, Hale v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co., 2018 WL 3241971 (S.D. Ill. July 3, 2018), which left us shaking our heads. How this suit could not be a blatant First Amendment violation is beyond us.
But that’s not really the point of this post.
The alleged “facts” are downright bizarre: The plaintiffs were sore losers in previous litigation against the same defendant. They had managed, through the use of now-discredited legal gamesmanship – a nationwide class action involving the extraterritorial application of the Illinois consumer protection statute – to obtain a verdict of over a billion dollars on claims involving State Farm and allegedly inferior replacement parts used in car repairs. Thankfully, plaintiffs couldn’t hold it. In Avery v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co., 835 N.E.2d 801 (Ill. 2005), the court rejected extraterritoriality and nationwide consumer fraud class actions. Id. at 855 (“we conclude that the circuit court erred in certifying a nationwide class that included class members whose claims proceedings took place outside Illinois”). The nominal vote was 4-2, with one justice not participating, but even the dissent agreed on this issue. Id. at 864 (“I agree with the ultimate result reached by my colleagues − I, too, would find that the circuit court erred in certifying the nationwide class”) (concurring and dissenting opinion). There were a slew of other issues in this contentious case, but with rejection of the nationwide extraterritorial class, any basis for the boxcar, billion-dollar verdict disappeared.
But plaintiffs (or their lawyers) didn’t give up. Instead they filed a RICO action alleging that State Farm was “racketeering” when it gave large amounts of campaign contributions – Hale contains nothing to suggest that any state-law campaign finance violations were involved − to support the election of a particular “pro-business” candidate to the Illinois Supreme Court, while the Avery appeal was pending:
In essence, plaintiffs allege that defendants secretly recruited [the candidate] to run for an open seat on the Illinois Supreme Court, where the Avery . . . appeal was pending; that defendants organized and managed his campaign behind the scenes; that defendants covertly funneled millions of dollars to support his campaign through intermediary organizations over which [defendants] exerted considerable influence.
Hale, 2018 WL 3241971, at *1. You get the drift. Next came the predictable allegations that everything was covered up so no recusal occurred. Id. The new justice supposedly “broke” a “deadlock” – yeah, right, in a case where the main result was unanimous − and “voted to overturn the judgment.” Id. All this purportedly nefarious politicking supposedly “deprived [plaintiff plaintiffs] of their constitutionally-guaranteed right to be judged by a tribunal uncontaminated by politics.” Id.
It’s not the point of this post to debate the intricacies of RICO causation, damages, or enterprises. We don’t think Hale should ever have gone that far. We’ve previously advocated the First Amendment protection of purely scientific speech, because we don’t believe that one side to a scientific debate should be allowed to sue the other into submission. That was our primary interest when Citizens United v. Federal Election Com’n, 558 U.S. 310 (2010), was handed down. We frankly didn’t dream that core political speech of the sort at issue in Hale could give rise to private prosecutions under RICO.
But be that as it may. If it’s open season on the opposition’s campaign contributions, can the defense side play, too? After all, in most judicial elections, contributions from the defense are dwarfed by what our politically minded adversaries are able to raise and spend. It’s no secret. Here, for example, is the “Campaign Finance Online Reporting” of the Pennsylvania Secretary of State. You can type in the name of your most (or least) favorite judge and relevant election year and see everybody from whom s/he reported receiving contributions. Or you can click on “contributions made” and track the donations by your favorite plaintiffs’ lawyer or firm. Our clients have just as much of a “constitutionally-guaranteed right to be judged by a tribunal uncontaminated by politics” as do plaintiffs. Are there RICO violations here?
But maybe that’s not enough. Perhaps it’s too diffuse to assert a RICO violation just because the other side’s contributions made up 90%+ of the total contributions to a particular judge sitting on a particular case. Maybe there needs to be a “pending” matter to focus things more precisely. Still, our side might be able to play. Consider all of those “civil enforcement” actions nominally brought by cities, counties, and states against our clients – where the real vigorish goes to the contingent fee, private counsel brought in to prosecute the action for the government. We’ve complained about those actions, as well, without much success. If it turns out that contingent fee counsel (or those acting in concert with counsel) made large political contributions to the particular politicians who later authorized the filing of one of those suits against a client, does the client have a RICO counterclaim under the same rationale as Hale?
Our bottom line is that suits like Hale are abuses of the judicial system and attempts to sue over the other side’s First Amendment protected political activity. We’re, frankly, shocked that Hale survived summary judgment. But if plaintiffs insist on opening up that Pandora’s Box, our side should consider whether it wants to play, too.