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Statement of Robert Weissman, President, Public Citizen

Note: The appellees in Price v. Philip Morris have filed a motion calling for Illinois Supreme Court Justice Lloyd Karmeier to recuse himself from the case. The request cites money allegedly spent by Philip Morris’ parent company in support of Karmeier’s retention election, funds that were channeled through a third-party organization and not transparent to the public, arguing that this funding requires recusal under the standard established by the U.S. Supreme Court in Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Co. The motion also cites statements Karmeier made to a newspaper that the appellees claim evidences bias or the appearance of bias. Public Citizen in 2004 filed an amicus brief in the case, which centered around the use by cigarette companies of terms such as “light” and “low tar.”

For the public to trust that its courts are fair and administer equal justice, they must believe that judges are unbiased. For our courts to work and operate with public confidence, judges who may be biased or appear to be biased in a particular case must recuse themselves. For this reason, Illinois Supreme Court Justice Lloyd Karmeier should recuse himself from the Philip Morris litigation.

The paper trail appears to show that Altria (the parent company of Philip Morris USA) contributed more than $700,000 to support the retention of Justice Karmeier – considerably more than half of all the money spent in support of Justice Karmeier’s 2014 retention election.

On its face, such a large expenditure, amounting to more than half of the spending on Justice Karmeier’s behalf, would make the case for recusal in major litigation involving Altria. The argument for recusal is further buttressed by Justice Karmeier’s public comments, which raise questions about his impartiality in the Philip Morris litigation.

Altria did not donate money directly to Justice Karmeier’s retention election campaign committee. Rather, it appears, the company made large contributions to the Republican State Leadership Committee, which then funneled monies on to an Illinois-specific independent expenditure committee, Republican State Leadership Committee – IE Committee (RSLC-IE).

The indirect nature of this funding makes it impossible to speak with certainty about Altria’s support of Justice Karmeier, but the paper trail makes it seem extremely likely that Altria’s reported donations to the Republican State Leadership Committee were intended and used to support Justice Karmeier’s retention election effort.

Indeed, the apparent indirect channeling of the funds to Justice Karmeier, and Altria’s apparent intention to keep its support of Justice Karmeier from public knowledge, makes the apparent significant and disproportionate influence of the expenditure all the worse. It deepens questions about Altria’s intent and the appearance of partiality created by the contributions.

Absent the presentation of some new information that explains away what the public record appears to show, Justice Karmeier should recuse himself from the Philip Morris case.

Across the United States, there has been a flood of money into judicial elections in the past two decades. To maintain a fair court system, it is plain that judicial elections should be carried out with public funding. States are free to adopt such solutions, but in the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, it is at best questionable whether they could maintain restrictions on outside spending. So long as they cannot, or do not, it is imperative that they at least require litigants to disclose their relevant election spending in advance of a court’s consideration of their case.

Read a news story about the controversy.

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This week, the McConnell-Boehner corporate Congress launched a broadside on the regulatory system. The U.S. House of Representatives passed measures that would bring down the entire regulatory system – the one that helps keep our air safe to breathe, our water clean, our food safe to eat and our financial system secure. House lawmakers also considered a measure that would further victimize people suffering from asbestos-related diseases.

What’s coming up next week? Here’s what we know about so far:

The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works holds a hearing at 9:30 a.m. on Wednesday on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) proposals to curb carbon dioxide emissions both from new and existing power plants. The hearing is purportedly designed to explore the impacts of the rules.

Expect to hear a lot of moaning and groaning from fossil fuel industry, particular the coal titans. They likely will be complaining loudest about the proposal to curb emissions from existing plants.

Here’s what you should remember, though: The EPA’s plan will help consumers by reducing electricity costs. Yes, you heard right. Here’s how: The plan will require a lot more energy efficiency. That means that people will use less electricity to power their homes.

The plan also will create jobs, boost the economy – and improve public health, because there will be less pollution. What’s more, the EPA estimates that its rule will boost the economy by $26 billion to $84 billion per year.

Learn more about the consumer case for the EPA greenhouse gas rule.

This week, the Senate enjoys an opportunity to secure a commitment that criminal mega-banks and their executives will held to the same legal standards as smaller crooks.

On Jan. 28, 2015, the Senate Judiciary Committee opens two days of hearings to consider President Obama’s nomination of Loretta Lynch to be Attorney General (AG) of the United States.  She would be the chief law enforcer for the United States. Currently, she is the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York.  In this New York office, she brokered what’s called a deferred prosecution agreement (DPA) with HSBC, one of the world’s largest banks.  HSBC admitted to massive criminal money laundering. Rather than indict the firm or any individuals, the DPA required HSBC to pay a fine — $1.9 billion, or roughly a month’s profit.  Sen. Charles Grassley (D-Iowa), who will chair the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings, asked current AG Eric Holder why the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) didn’t bring criminal charges against HSBC in a hearing two years ago. Holder responded that some firms are just too big.

Here are some questions that senators should ask to make sure that size no longer shields a company from the rule of law.

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The McConnell-Boehner Congress this week lobbed fewer public interest attacks than in its first couple of weeks – likely because Monday’s holiday and Tuesday’s State of the Union address kept them otherwise engaged – but the U.S. Senate did bring upon itself a good dose of ridicule by debating whether human activity is causing climate change. Forty-nine GOP senators, bucking what 97 percent of scientists say, said “no.”

What public interest assaults are coming next week? Here’s what we know about so far. Please contact us if you have questions.

• Senate lawmakers will try to fast track the export of liquefied natural gas (LNG). The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee holds a hearing on Jan. 29 on the LNG Permitting Certainty and Transparency Act (PDF) (S. 33). The measure would limit the time the Department of Energy has to consider applications to export liquefied natural gas. There are multiple problems with expediting the export of LNG. For instance, it could lead to higher natural gas prices, harming consumers who rely on it. Prioritizing LNG exports would help the fracking industry at the expense of the rest of the economy. And it appears as though exporting LNG is counter to a 1975 law.

• The Senate likely will vote on a bill to approve the Keystone XL pipeline. If this bill succeeds, it will mean higher gasoline prices for U.S. motorists. The purpose of the Keystone pipeline is to take landlocked tar sands oil to the export-oriented refineries of the Gulf Coast, refine the low-grade oil and then ship the product to world markets.

The pipeline would transport the dirtiest oil in the world across America’s largest freshwater aquifer, risking a major oil spill and causing dangerous pollutants to be released into the air during the refining process. A 2013 Public Citizen report questioned the safety of Keystone XL’s Texas segment, documenting anomalies that could lead to spills or leaks.

More info:

Statement: KXL: Not in the National Interest

Statement of Susan Harley, Deputy Director, Public Citizen’s Congress Watch Division

Note: U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), a ranking member of the House Budget Committee, today laid out his proposal to increase tax equity for working families.

U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen should be applauded for including a Wall Street tax (also called a financial transaction tax or financial speculation tax) as a key part of his action plan to address tax fairness.

The plan contains tax code changes designed to benefit working-class families over the wealthy. Van Hollen proposes to pay for the tax cuts for individuals by instituting a “high roller” fee to curb Wall Street speculation. Van Hollen made the commonsense suggestion that the U.S. should “move forward in concert” with European countries that are poised to institute an expected 0.1 percent tax on financial transactions.

It’s wonderful to see Rep. Van Hollen champion a fee on Wall Street trades as a way to level the tax playing field for working Americans. This is an easy way to raise hundreds of billions in revenue while slowing down the kind of high-speed trading that helped lead to the spring 2010 flash crash that was a large reason the stock market plummeted 1,000 points in a few minutes. We and our allies look forward to working with the lawmaker and other leaders in Congress to get a Wall Street speculation tax passed.

Also welcome in Rep. Van Hollen’s plan is a proposal to limit a deduction now taken by companies that pay executives more than $1 million in annual compensation, a figure that Congress has already declared an unnecessary business expense. Loopholes in the current law permit companies to deduct as a business expense the payment of more than $1 million if it is considered “performance based.”

Details of the action plan are still being discussed, but what was unveiled today is a great starting point for all upcoming tax and budget negotiations in the 114th Congress.

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