The Supreme Court refused this week to consider whether a top judge in Illinois improperly voted to throw out a $1 billion judgment against State Farm Insurance Co. after accepting campaign donations from company lawyers and executives.
The case raised an important question about judicial ethics: does the Constitution entitle average citizens a day in court before an impartial judge?
It was filed on behalf of State Farm customers who won a class-action lawsuit accusing the company of fraud for refusing to pay for top-quality replacement parts on damaged cars.
Illinois Supreme Court Justice Lloyd Karmeier was a deciding vote in a decision to throw out the entire judgment last year.
A dozen public interest groups had pressed the Supreme Court to declare that people have a due process right to an unbiased judge, pointing out that 30 states will hold supreme court elections this year and money may taint those contests.
Lawyers for the groups, including Common Cause, told justices that high-dollar judicial races “engender an appearance of corruption that critically threatens the very foundation of the courts, and the rights of the litigants who appear in them.”
Karmeier, a Republican, and his Democratic opponent spent, combined, more than $9 million in 2004 in what experts called the most expensive judge race in American history.
After taking the bench he sided with State Farm, and separately voted to throw out a $10 billion fraud judgment against Philip Morris USA over the marketing of its “light” cigarettes.
Justices were told that Karmeier directly received $350,000 in State Farm-related donations.
But lawyers for State Farm flatly denied that and said the company itself gave no money to Karmeier. “This court should reject (their) attempt to salvage some part of their case by improperly impugning the integrity of Justice Karmeier and the Illinois Supreme Court,” lead lawyer Sheila Birnbaum said in a filing.
The Illinois Supreme Court has been split on whether to overturn the verdict entirely, and Karmeier cast the deciding vote.
Separately, public interest groups have asked a state board that looks into allegations of judicial misconduct to investigate Karmeier.
The case is Avery v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co., 05-842.
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