The Senate Judiciary Committee voted largely along party lines today to endorse plaintiffs' lawyer John McConnell Jr. for the federal district court in Rhode Island.
Republican senators attacked McConnell as anti-business, picking up on intense criticism from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business groups, while Democrats called those depictions cartoonish and touted support from McConnell’s home state.
McConnell is the Providence, R.I., managing partner of South Carolina-based Motley Rice. He took a lead role in major cases involving asbestos, and the Rhode Island attorney general’s office hired him on a contingency basis to handle litigation against the lead-paint and tobacco industries, with mixed results.
His nomination, which now heads to the full Senate, has shaped up as a major fight because of the Chamber’s involvement. As The National Law Journal reported, Chamber officials said Wednesday they will count senators’ votes on McConnell when they compile their rankings.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) was the only senator to go against his party when he cast a vote, in absentia, for McConnell. The committee’s vote was 13-6.
The committee’s top Republican, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), said he wasn’t worried about McConnell’s work in private practice for such clients as asbestos victims. But Sessions, a former Alabama attorney general, said he does not like the practice of states hiring outside counsel on a contingency basis.
“It’s a controversial procedure. I’ve never liked it,” Sessions said. “The fees can be huge.”
If confirmed, McConnell would continue to receive payouts of between $2.5 million and $3.1 million annually from Motley Rice, according to answers (PDF) he provided the committee. The payouts would continue through 2024.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) hired McConnell for the lead-paint case when Whitehouse was his state’s attorney general. Now a member of the Judiciary Committee, Whitehouse said the Senate should not favor defense lawyers for judgeships over plaintiffs’ lawyers.
“There is no dishonor in representing regular people who have been harmed,” he said.