A tort reform group is taking issue with hefty campaign spending in the upcoming state Supreme Court race by a group of lawyers pursuing lawsuits against oil and gas companies for coastal damage.
Restore Our Coast, a political action committee, has received nearly $1 million in campaign contributions and loans from a group of mainly plaintiffs attorneys, spending much of it on television ads supporting 3rd Circuit Court of Appeal Judge Jimmy Genovese in his race against 15th Judicial District Judge Marilyn Castle. They are competing to fill a seat on the Supreme Court for the 3rd District in southwest Louisiana.
The winner of Tuesday's election will succeed retiring Justice Jeannette Knoll.
Melissa Landry, executive director of Louisiana Lawsuit Abuse Watch, said roughly half of the contributions to Restore Our Coast came from attorneys pursuing lawsuits against oil and gas companies for coastal damage.
"This is an enormous amount of money being spent by a relatively small group of lawyers who have a very particular interest in those coastal lawsuits," she said.
As a political action committee not directly connected to a candidate's campaign, contributors to Restore Our Coast do not face the same $5,000 limit as contributors to a candidate, and much of the group's money has come in big checks ranging from $10,000 to $50,000.
"The fact that there is no limitation at all whatsoever has allowed disproportionate spending by this particular group of personal injury trial lawyers on this judicial election," Landry said.
But Restore Our Coast is not the only group to take an interest in the race, a point forcefully noted by attorney Don Carmouche, a partner in one of the leading firms involved in coastal damage lawsuits against oil and gas companies and one that contributed $100,000 to Restore Our Coast and loaned another $175,000 to the group.
He pointed to the conservative Virginia-based Center for Individual Freedom, which has been funding a series of ads in the race favoring Castle, some touting her as tough on crime and others taking jabs at Genovese.
The Center of Individual Freedom is not registered in Louisiana as a political action committee and the source and amount of its funding is not known. However, it has spent at least $500,000 on television ads in the state Supreme Court race, according to figures from the New York University School of Law's Brennan Center for Justice, which tracks media buys in state Supreme Court races across the country.
“Restore Our Coast properly reports its contributors in a transparent manner. Unfortunately, the Center for Individual Freedom, a Virginia based organization, does not," Carmouche said in a written statement. "In fact, their money is 'dark' or 'secret' money. They do not report. Who are they? No one knows. Why are they spending millions in a Supreme Court race in Louisiana? No one knows."
Sue Soileau Brignac, chairwoman of the Restore Our Coast PAC, defended the group's work and said she welcomes the contributions of attorneys or anyone else interested in efforts "to restore the Louisiana coast to its natural state."
"This will require a new, fair balance between our economic needs and environmental concerns," she said.
A third outside group also is involved in the race.
Citizens for Judicial Excellence has raised about $329,000, with $245,000 of that coming from conservative and politically active Baton Rouge businessman Lane Grigbsy, according to state campaign finance filings.
The political action committee has used its money for a series of ads attacking Genovese's record.
Campaign contributors already have become an issue at the state Supreme Court.
Last year, Justice Jeff Hughes was blocked by four of his fellow justices from considering two potentially high-stakes environmental damage lawsuits against oil and gas companies.
The companies pushed for his recusal, arguing Hughes could not be impartial because law firms involved in lawsuits against the industry had contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to help win his election in 2012.