Wednesday, March 2, 2005
Judge Appointee Ripped Insurance Field
By Scott Sandlin
Journal Staff Writer
Clay Campbell won't be sworn in for three weeks as the newest judge on the Bernalillo County District Court bench.
But already his appointment has raised some eyebrows on the defense side of the legal community.
The reason: Unabashedly critical commentary about insurance companies by Campbell in columns he wrote as editor of the New Mexico Trial Lawyers journal.
Campbell, 43, invoked everyone from Chilean poet Pablo Neruda to the defunct political rock group Rage Against the Machine in editorials that suggested the insurance industry was populated by crybabies and whiners who aren't timid about stretching the truth.
Campbell, a partner at McGinn, Carpenter, Campbell, Montoya & Love, a plaintiffs' firm that specializes in catastrophic injury cases, was appointed by Gov. Bill Richardson from a list of three recommendations by a judicial selection commission.
Campbell steps into the civil judge slot created by the resignation of Judge Wendy York and will inherit her caseload. He said he does not plan to automatically step down from insurance cases.
In Campbell's year-plus editing of the trial lawyers' magazine, he combined his advocacy skills with a writing ability honed as a reporter in southern Virginia and in a master's program in creative writing at the University of New Mexico.
"Last year, while insurance companies were crying loudly to Congress about the need for tort reform, they were quietly counting billions of dollars and whispering a whopping 320 percent profit increase over the previous year," he wrote in one editorial. "... They aren't going broke, they're going straight to hell."
He also wrote, "The position the industry takes nationwide when it argues for 'tort reform' (is) 'We're going to go bankrupt if we have to pay these crazy jury awards.' Wah wah wah."
In another piece, he excoriated the State Bar for publishing an opinionated letter that decried personal injury cases as examples of "us(ing) tort law to reward people for bad judgment."
Campbell wrote that he was proud of his work on behalf of injured people.
"... In every single one of our cases, the plaintiff, the client, the human being, has been disadvantaged, disenfranchised, downtrodden, hurt or killed," he wrote.
Paul Houston, New Mexico Defense Lawyers president, said the editorials raised some hackles as well as eyebrows.
"They certainly are acrimonious and highly inflammatory, but you consider the audience he was writing to as well. And the audience is other trial attorneys," he said.
Houston said he objected to an editorial where Campbell tagged the insurance industry as "the defrauder." And he takes issue with the idea that all plaintiffs' cases involve disenfranchised victims.
"That's just not the case," he said. "Every defense attorney that's been practicing for five or more years would have a dozen or more cases we consider totally meritless."
That said, even Houston doesn't believe it will be a significant long-term problem.
"We know that in every instance a judge is going to come into the job with some... I'll call it baggage," he said. "It's not necessarily bad baggage, but life experiences."
The real measure, he said, "is that judge's decisions and the way that judge handles himself or herself over time."
Campbell says he understands there's a difference between being an advocate and a judge and the editorials were written as an advocate.
The defrauder comment, he said, was made in regard to the national debate over what business interests call "tort reform" and the plaintiffs' bar calls "wrongdoers-don't-pay" legislation.
"Where I am no-apologies, no-pretensions being an advocate for the injured, I can understand how that would concern insurance defense lawyers who don't know me," he said. "The best evidence of how I will be on the bench might be how I practice law. And I think virtually all of my opponents would say I'm a straight shooter and I'm fair."
Campbell has a range of experience. He worked six months as an oilfield roughneck and saved enough to pay for college. He spent four years handling commercial transactions at a Richmond, Va., law firm after graduating from William and Mary Law School with honors. His cases over the last decade frequently involved industrial accidents where workers were severely injured or killed on the job.
Job is to be fair
Andy Schultz, managing partner at the Rodey law firm and a member of the selection commission that recommended Campbell, asked during Campbell's interview how he would offset "the collective groan from the insurance bar" whenever a plaintiff's lawyer is named to the bench.
Campbell's response: His job as judge is to be fair.
Campbell refuses to say categorically that he will not hear a case involving an insurance defendant, though he said he would recuse himself if there were particular facts that caused him concern or the appearance of impropriety.
"I wouldn't think that the fact that I've written these editorials would cause me to recuse from every insurance case," he said.
Schultz said sometimes the defense bar's groan is well-founded and sometimes it's short-lived.
With York, for instance, who came to the bench from a similar background, it took a year before partners at his defense-oriented firm started to encourage clients to keep York on their cases.
State law permits each party in a lawsuit to disqualify a judge without giving a reason within the first 10 days.
Chief District Judge William Lang says whenever a new judge comes in, there's spike in disqualifications which may or may not have to do with perceptions of impartiality.
Of the editorials, Lang said: "It blows over if he does the job well. The proof is in what he does here, not what he said a year ago."