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Trial lawyers’ group responds to president’s address on oil spill

Last night President Barack Obama gave his first televised address from the Oval office, vowing to hold BP fully responsible for the ongoing oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico.

“We will make BP pay for the damage that it has caused,” Obama said in the address.

Obama said he is meeting today with BP’s chairman, Carl-Henric Svanberg, to direct him to “set aside whatever resources are required to compensate the workers and business owners who have been harmed as a result of his company’s recklessness.  And this fund will not be controlled by BP.  In order to ensure that all legitimate claims are paid out in a fair and timely manner, the account must and will be administered by an independent third party.”

In response, Anthony Tarricone, president of the trial lawyers’ group the American Association for Justice, said that while such a plan “may quickly and fairly compensate” some victims, others must be allowed to seek recourse in the courts.

“Many questions need to be answered before such a compensation program is formed, and we will be asking them over the days and weeks to come,” Tarricone said in a statement after Obama’s address.  “Ultimately, a claims process must ensure Gulf Coast residents and businesses can be fully compensated, preserve access to the civil justice system, and hold BP and other corporations accountable for their wrongdoing.”

Tarricone said some key questions remain on issues, such as how the value of claims will be decided, whether claimants have access to courts if the compensation efforts are insufficient, and whether BO will be sufficiently punished for wrongdoing.

UPDATE: Following the meeting with Obama, BP executives have agreed to establish a $20 billion fund to satisfy claims over the next three and a half years. “The fund does not represent a cap on BP liabilities, but will be available to satisfy legitimate claims,” BP’s statement reads in part.

Friday morning docket: The Kagan papers

Today the Clinton Library is set to deliver the first batch of documents from Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan’s tenure in the White House, where she served as counsel and as a domestic policy adviser in the Clinton administration.

The papers will be the first of more than 160,000 pages amassed by the library at he request of Senate lawmakers vetting Kagan’s nomination. The documents could also provide some insight into Kagan’s views on some of the issues the administration faced at the time, including gun control and abortion rights.

Meanwhile, Sen. Jeff Sessions, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, wants even more documents on Kagan. He has asked the Pentagon for information relating to its military recruitment efforts at Harvard University during the time Kagan was dean of the law school. The request indicates that Sessions plans to make an issue of Kagan’s objection to military recruiters on campus, which she said violated the school’s anti-discrimination policy since the military barred gays from openly serving.

And if Kagan is going to face some tough questions during her confirmation hearings, which begin later this month, you can’t say she didn’t ask for it. In a 1995 law review article, Kagan lamented the fact that Supreme Court confirmation hearings lacked substantive inquiry. “The practice of substantive inquiry has suffered a precipitous fall since the Bork hearings, so much so that today it hardly deserves the title ‘practice’ at all,” Kagan wrote.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have taken note of Kagan’s comments.

“I talked to her about that essay,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, according to the Associated Press. “She said, ‘I think I’m probably going to hear that quoted back to me a few times during the hearing.’

“I said, ‘Starting with me.'”

In other news,

Safety bill advances: A bill that would impose a host of new safety requirements on automobile manufacturers and boost federal authorities’ enforcement capabilities over them has advanced in the House. (Lawyers USA)

Punitive measures: As oil from the massive spill in the Gulf of Mexico continues to spread, lawmakers have introduced legislation that would lift the cap on punitive damages that can be assessed against those responsible for such disasters under maritime law. (Lawyers USA)

Night at the theatre: Justices and other luminaries turned out for yesterday’s opening night of the play “Thurgood” at the Kennedy Center last night. (The BLT)

Immigration chat: Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer and President Obama met to discuss the state’s controversial immigration law. (New York Times)

White House officials subpoenaed in Blago trial

As jury selection is set to begin today in the trial of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, the White House has confirmed that President Barack Obama’s chief is staff, Rahm Emanuel, as well as White House advisor Valerie Jarrett, have been subpoenaed to testify for the defense.

Blagojevich, who was impeached and ousted from office last year, faces 24 counts in connection to a number of charges of misconduct – including the attempt to sell the Senate seat vacated by Obama.

Sheldon Sorosky, attorney for the former governor described Emanuel as a “critical” witness for the defense because he was the supposed victim of an extortion, reports the Chicago Sun-Times. Sorosky said he plans to ask Emanuel about that alleged extortion attempt and about  the Senate seat selection process. Valerie Jarrett was among those interested in the seat, and Emanuel had discussions with Blagojevich and his staff about the vacancy.

Other Washington bigwigs who were subpoenaed in the case include Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Sen. Dick Durbin and Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.

U.S. District Judge James Zagel nixed an attempt by the defense to subpoena Obama.

GOP senators: SG support doesn’t ring Supreme

Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan will begin meeting with members of the Senate tomorrow, an informal first step in her confirmation process. But many lawmakers are not waiting until tomorrow to comment about the nominee – particularly the seven senate Republicans who voted to confirm Kagan as solicitor general.

Seven Republicans voted in favor of Kagan’s bid to be the administration’s top lawyer last year: Senate Judiciary Committee members Sens. Orrin Hatch, Jon Kyl and  Tom Coburn, and fellow Sens. Susan Collins, Judd Gregg, Richard Lugar, and Olympia Snowe.

By the time President Obama had introduced his nominee yesterday morning, Hatch had issued a statement that seemed to dismiss the praise of Kagan based on her professional background. “Any Supreme Court nominee should have an impressive resumé,” said Hatch.

Don’t read too much into his solicitor general vote either, Hatch said. “Her previous confirmation, and my support for her in that position, do not by themselves establish either her qualifications for the Supreme Court or my obligation to support her,” Hatch said.

Coburn promised to keep “an open mind” on Kagan as senators vet her. But he also distinguished his previous vote. “This is a totally different deal,” Coburn said. “Nobody should take that to mean I think she’s acceptable for the Supreme Court … . They’re not comparable positions. This is a lifetime appointment to the highest court in the land.”

Kyl echoed the sentiment. “As I made clear when I supported her confirmation as Solicitor General, a temporary political appointment is far different than a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court,” Kyl said.

Lugar also said his vote to confirm Kagan as solicitor general is not an indication of how he will vote on her nomination to the high court.

Collins remained noncommittal in her statement. “Ms. Kagan has an impressive resume of dedicated public service and strong legal credentials but she does not have extensive writings by which one can assess her judicial philosophy,” Collins said. “In the coming weeks, I will closely examine her record as U.S. Solicitor General. I will also follow the Judiciary Committee hearings so that I can better assess how she might approach issues as a judge.”

Snowe took the same approach. “I look forward to learning more about her experience and expertise, and to meeting with her to discuss a variety of issues, including how she would characterize her judicial philosophy,” Snowe said.

Gregg didn’t mention his previous vote in favor of Kagan at all. “I congratulate Solicitor General Elena Kagan on being nominated to the United States Supreme Court and look forward to carefully reviewing her record and qualifications for this position,” Gregg said.

Monday status conference: Opinions and interviews

Oral arguments for the term have concluded, but the U.S. Supreme Court still has 44 opinions to release before the term concludes at the end of next month. Expect some of those rulings to be released this morning. The Court could also add new cases to next term’s docket. Updates on newsworthy developments from the Court can be found later on this blog.

As for the search for the news Supreme Court justice, President Obama interviewed the candidate that is currently seen as the frontrunner – Solicitor General Elena Kagan – at the White House Friday. The interview was the third the president has conducted so far in his search. Last month he talked to D.C. Circuit Judge Merrick Garland, and last week he spoke with 9th Circuit Judge Sidney Thomas.

Meanwhile, the White House – which had planned to focus on the message of economic recovery this week while continuing the Supreme Court selection process – instead is focusing on the Golf Coast disaster caused by a massive oil spill and the possible terrorist plot in New York City’s Times Square over the weekend.

In other news:

Change at the top: The top lobbyist for the American Association for Justice, the nation’s largest trial lawyers group, will be named its chief executive officer today. Linda Lipsen helped lead efforts to keep medical malpractice liability caps and other measures out of the law overhauling the nation’s healthcare system. (Washington Post)

Safety suits: Auto design defects – similar to the sudden acceleration problems linked to Toyota vehicles – have been brought to light through civil lawsuits that ultimately led to increased safety standards, according to a new report from the American Association for Justice. (Lawyers USA)

Camera ready? The Senate Judiciary Committee has advanced a bill that would require the U.S. Supreme Court to allow cameras in its courtroom unless the justices vote otherwise in a particular case. (Lawyers USA)

Obama seeks campaign spending cap: Warning of a “potential corporate takeover of our elections,” the president has called on Congress to undo the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizen’s United v. FEC. (New York Times)

Friday morning docket: Shortlist buzz

Time for an end-of-the-week look at the latest buzz about the next Supreme Court justice.

The short of it: According to reports, Solicitor General Elena Kagan is still at the top of the White House’s shortlist to replace retiring Justice John Paul Stevens, although that list has grown in 10 people.

This week CBS News’s Jan Crawford named the people on that shortlist – although, she notes, “chances are slim that an elected official – someone who’s been through the rough-and-tumble world of politics – will get the nod.”

Meanwhile, there is a small but vocal contingent lining up against one member of that list – U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Merrick Garland, reports the Washington Post. Yet unlike other nominees, it’s not conservatives who are complaining about Garland, but rather activists on the left.

Meanwhile, liberal supporters of 7th Circuit Judge Diane Wood are pushing back against conservatives who have voiced opposition to her being named to the High Court, reports the Atlantic.

And Yesterday President Obama wrapped up discussions about the confirmation process with all 12 Democrats and all 7 Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee, the New York Times reports. White House officials said the president will meet with more members of the Senate in the coming days.

In other news:

Praying to a higher court: The Obama administration plans to appeal a ruling declaring the National Day of Prayer constitutional. (AP)

Eight is enough? Do we even need nine justices? We’ve gotten by with fewer in the past. (Christian Science Monitor)

‘Reality’ High Court? What would a “reality” Supreme Court justice look like? The Boston Herald’s Lauren Beckham Falcone imagines: “‘Crush videos? Even I’m not that mean,’ sniffs ‘American Idol’s’ Simon Cowell as he downs another flute of champagne.” (Boston Herald)

Obama meets with senators about SCOTUS pick

After meeting with Senate leaders at the White House about the next Supreme Court nominee, President Barack Obama told reporters this morning that he will select someone to replace retiring Justice John Paul Stevens some time next month.

Speaking to the press as he sat with Vice President Joe Biden, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy and ranking Republican Jeff Sessions, Obama called Stevens “one of the finest Supreme Court justices that we’ve seen.”

“Those are going to be some tough shoes to fill,” Obama said. “This is somebody who operated with extraordinary integrity and fidelity to the law. But I’m confident that we can come up with a nominee who will gain the confidence of the Senate and the confidence of the country, and the confidence of individuals who look to the Court to provide even handed justice to all Americans.”

Obama said he hoped for the confirmation process to go as smoothly as it did last year.

“Last time when I nominated Sonia Sotomayor, I have to say that all the individuals who are sitting here … worked very cooperatively on what I considered to be a very smooth, civil, thoughtful nomination process and confirmation process. [M]y hope is that we can do the same thing this time.”

He said last year the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor came at the end of May, and he hoped to make or beat that timeline this year.

When asked what bearing the issue of abortion would have on his selection, Obama said he firmly believes in a woman’s right to bodily autonomy, but said that he had no litmus test.

“This has been a hugely contentions issue in our country for a very long time,” Obama said. “I have said the same thing that every president has said since this issue case up, which is I don’t have a litmus test.”

But he said he would select “somebody who is going to be interpreting our Constitution in a way that takes into account individual rights, and that includes women’s rights. And that is going to be something very important to me. … Individuals are protected in their privacy, their bodily integrity, and women are not exempt from that.”

UPDATE: After the meeting, Sessions and McConnell issued a joint statement:

“When the President selects a nominee, Senate Republicans will review that nominee’s record diligently and respectfully with the goal of ensuring that the American people can be confident that the nominee will be able to fulfill the judicial oath, which is to ‘faithfully and impartially’ administer justice ‘without respect to persons,'” the statement read.

“Judges must apply the Constitution and laws even-handedly. They should not enter the courtroom with preconceived outcomes in mind, or work to arrive at the preferred result of any President or political party. A Supreme Court justice must not be a rubberstamp or policy arm for any Administration.

“As we did with Justice Sotomayor, we will treat the President’s nominee fairly. But a lifetime position on the nation’s highest court requires a thorough process, not a rush to judgment.”

Friday morning docket: a public (and incorrect) outing

White House officials were incensed yesterday by a CBS News online column asserting that Solicitor General Elena Kagan, who is reportedly at the top of President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee list, is a lesbian.

According to the Washington Post‘s Howard Kurtz, White House officials immediately assailed the column, written by former Bush aide Ben Domenech, which a asserted that the choice to put the first “openly gay justice” on the bench would please Obama’s base. White House officials said Kagan is not gay.

At first CBS officials refused to pull the online post. Instead, Domenech added an update saying Kagan was apparently “still closeted.”

But by the end of the day yesterday, executives at CBS pulled the column, saying it “just got through our filters” and that such an allegation should not have been published without “more evidence of its accuracy.”

Domenech later apologized, saying the information was based on rumor. “I offer my sincere apologies to Ms. Kagan if she is offended at all by my repetition of a Harvard rumor in a speculative blog post,” he said.

Anita Dunn, a former White House communications director who is helping White House officials with the Supreme Court nomination process, blasted the news organization for giving such a long leash to a writer who has faced plagiarism charges in the past.

“The fact that they’ve chosen to become enablers of people posting lies on their site tells us where the journalistic standards of CBS are in 2010,” Dunn told the Post, adding that such stories “appl(y) old stereotypes to single women with successful careers.”

Meanwhile, in other headlines:

The genteel justice: Retiring Justice John Paul Stevens’ oral argument questions are as tough as any other justice, but they come in a much more polite form. Supreme Court practitioners reflect on being asked: “May I ask you this question?” (Lawyers USA)

No fast audio: For the seventh time this term, the Supreme Court has declined a request to release same-day audio of oral arguments to broadcast stations. This is the first term in four years where no same-day audio was released, despite several high-profile cases on the docket dealing with campaign finance rules, gun rights, and Monday’s First Amendment school case. (ABA Journal)

Med-mal debate rages: A letter to AAJ’s membership about the health care law was quickly assailed by tort reform groups, demonstrating that the debate over medical malpractice reform will live long after lawmakers’ wrangling over the legislation’s language. (Lawyers USA)

Same-sex visitation rights: The Obama Administration will issue new rules aimed at granting hospital visiting rights to same-sex partners. (New York Times)

Monday status conference: Trying not to say the F-word

As lawmakers await President Barack Obama’s selection to fill the Supreme Court seat being vacated by retiring Justice John Paul Stevens, Democrats are stepping up their call for a speedy confirmation while Republicans are trying not to use the F-word – filibuster – but remaining firm that the president must pick a mainstream candidate.

On NBC’s “Meet the Press” yesterday, ranking Senate Judiciary Committee member Sen. Jeff. Sessions was asked whether there would be big confirmation fight.

“The answer to that is in the president’s hands,” said Sessions. “If we have a nominee that evidences a philosophy of judges know best, … then we are going to have a big fight about that because the American people don’t want that.”

Meanwhile, fellow committee Republican Sen. Jon Kyl, speaking yesterday on ABC’s “This Week,” called the most oft-mentioned potential candidates “nominally qualified.” Among those reportedly on Obama’s short list are Solicitor General Elena Kagan, federal appellate Judges Merrick Garland and Diane Wood and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

Kyl, who voted against the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor last year, didn’t take the issue of filibuster off the table, but he downplayed the possibility. “It is unlikely that here will be a filibuster unless its an extraordinary circumstance,” Kyl said, adding that “President Obama himself attempted to filibuster Justice [Samuel] Alito.” During the Sotomayor confirmation hearings last year, Republicans made much of Obama’s votes against Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr. and Alito during their confirmation hearings.

This is gearing up to be another long summer for the White House, the Senate and Supreme Court junkies.

Meanwhile, in other news (is there other news?):

Health case surprises: In addition to universal health care, the new reform law includes various provisions relevant to lawyers, including tax changes, an amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act, new whistleblower provisions for hospital employees and other employment-related updates. (Lawyers USA)

DOJ pick withdraws: Dawn Johnsen, Obama’s pick to lead the powerful Office of Legal Counsel at the Justice Department who faced staunch Republican opposition that slowed her nomination to a full stop,  withdrew from consideration for the post on Friday. (The New York Times)

States’ suit: More and more states are signing on to the lawsuit over the health care law. (WSJ’s Law Blog)

Roberts says he and Obama get along just fine

Despite President Barack Obama’s public rapping of a Supreme Court ruling during the State of the Union address, and subsequent comments from Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr. questioning why justices should even attend the politicized “pep rally,” yesterday Roberts said he and Obama get along well.

During an address at the Indiana University School of Law-Indianapolis, Roberts said when he and Obama see each other at official events they are friendly – although both realize they are limited in terms of conversation subjects. Presidents, “whether it’s President Bush or President Obama, recognize that they can’t talk to me about much, and I can’t talk to them about much,” Roberts said, according to the Wall Street Journal’s Law Blog. The usually safe topic of conversation? Fatherhood, Roberts said.

Speaking about his relationship with one of his colleagues, Roberts, who grew up in Indiana said: “I’ve always felt . . . a special affinity for Justice [John Paul] Stevens, who comes from Chicago…[P]eople from the Midwest have a certain openness about them.”

And while he disputed the notion that lawsuits are ruining the world, Roberts did say that “the federal courts are becoming more and more incapable of serving as forums for resolving disputes.”