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Another business vs. trial lawyer proxy war for Supreme Court

By TODD STACY, Alabama Daily News

This article was originally published in Inside Alabama Politics on May 16, 2022

During the tort wars of the 1990s and into the 2000s, business groups and trial lawyers would go toe-to-toe in pretty much every judicial race on the ballot. Those battles tend to be lower profile these days as the political landscape has changed quite a bit. Perhaps the biggest change is that the trial lawyers changed their name to the Alabama Association for Justice and learned to speak Republicans’ language after the GOP won a legislative super majority in 2010.

Yet, every now and then, a classic Trial versus Business contest emerges, and that seems to be the case with this year’s GOP primary for the Supreme Court. That’s thanks to a surge of funding at the last minute revealed by recent campaign finance reports.

Greg Cook is backed by “who’s who” of business groups, including the Business Council of Alabama, the Alabama Association of Realtors, the Alabama Trucking Association, the Alabama Farmers Federation, the Alabama Retail Association, the Alabama Hospital Association, the Alabama Homebuilders and the Associated General Contractors, among others. These groups have funded the bulk of his campaign going back several weeks and months.

On the other hand, the bulk of funding for Debra Jones’campaign has come in swiftly in the last several days – and those contributions are coming from mostly trial lawyers and affiliated PACs. Progress for Justice PAC, Trial’s premiere committee, contributed $654,500. BIZPAC, a Heather Coleman PAC that often plays in races with Trial, contributed $515,000. Other Trial-affiliated PACs have also given to Jones, including FAIR PAC at $95,000, CRA PAC at $80,000, Free Enterprise PAC at $50,000 and Mainstream PAC at $20,000. Additionally, 27 individual law firms have contributed to Jones totaling more than $130,000.

This has been a clever and effective tactic in recent election cycles for the trial lawyers. Without much movement early in the race, the business community could be lulled to sleep with a false sense of security thinking its candidate had a comfortable lead. Then, at the last minute, money flows and ad buys get placed, when it might be too late for business groups to react.

This year, the business side seems to have been more prepared. Trucking and BCA each went in for another $25,000 contribution to Cook in the last week. That puts them at $125,000 and $70,000 total this spring, respectively. Realtors not only gave Cook a $100,000 contribution but went beyond to invest in an independent expenditure campaign ad (more on that in a bit).

The Auto Dealers gave $25,000, Retail gave $15,000, Rural Electric Action PAC gave $10,000, Home builders gave $10,000, Regions Bank gave $10,000, the Medical Association gave $20,000 and the Hospitals gave $10,000.

This proxy war is making the Cook/Jones contest one of the most interesting and consequential races on the ballot. The question is will voters know or care about which sides are supporting which candidate? It used to be a major taboo for Republicans to be supported by trial lawyers. But that was a different political era and, like AEA on the education side, Trial has worked hard to rebrand themselves to appeal to conservatives.

There is some polling on the subject. Back in August, the ADN/Cygnal poll tested whether likely Republican voters had a favorable or unfavorable opinion of judicial candidates who receive funding from trial lawyer groups. A full 62% said they have an unfavorable opinion of those candidates who receive funding from trial lawyer groups.

That is surely the thinking behind the independent expenditure ad from the Realtors supporting Cook saying he will “stand up to trial lawyers and billboard attorneys.” Sources tell IAP that ad caught the attention of Trial and was partially responsible for the late flurry of cash in the last several days.

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