Supreme Court Gets Rid of Conflicts by Dismissing Case

Laura Ernde, a staff writer at the Daily Journal, alerted me to her piece in yesterday’s edition of that paper about last week’s dismissal of the Lockheed Litigation Cases, case no. S132167. According to her article, this was one of the oldest matters on the court’s docket and the dismissal comes more than two years after briefing was complete.

The dismissal apparently arises out of conflicts of interest. According to the article, four of the seven justices had recused themselves from these five consolidated toxic tort cases because they owned stock in at least one of the oil company defendants.

The Supreme Court’s actual order is not posted as a final disposition on the court’s website, nor does it appear to be available on Westlaw. But here’s how the docket web page for the case describes it, which may or may not be verbatim from the order:

Review in the above-captioned matter is dismissed in light of circumstances, arising since review was granted, that require a majority of the permanent members of the court to recuse themselves. (See Cal. Code of Judicial Ethics, Canon 3.E(4)(c), (5)(d); Cal. Rules of Court, rule 8.528(b).) Kennard, Baxter, Chin, and Corrigan, JJ., were recused and did not participate. Hon. William R. McGuiness, Administrative Presiding Justice of the Court of Appeal, First Appellate District, Division Three, assigned by the Chief Justice pursuant to article VI, section 6 of the California Constitution. Votes: George, C.J., Werdegar, Moreno, and McGuiness, JJ.

The article is devoted in large part to the unusual reasons for the dismissal. It quotes Santa Clara University law professor Gerald Uelman’s astonishment at the reasons for the dismissal, as well as Chief Justice George’s defense of it on the ground that a decision on the merits by appointed justices would not carry the same weight as a decision of the regular court members. The latter strikes me as an odd position to take in light of the fact that, as the article points out, the court has appointed 7-member panels in the past. The article claims that has happened in cases in which the entire court was “conflicted,” but writes that Chief Justice George distinguishes those prior occasions because “the new panels [on those prior occasions] were created out of necessity and not conflicts of interest.” (That is Ms. Ernde’s characterization of Chief Justice George’s position, not a quote attributed to him.)

The article quotes several of the attorneys involved in the case, none of whom saw the dismissal coming. My favorite quote is from Horvitz & Levy attorney David M. Axelrad, representing Exxon, who is quoted as saying, “Some people say that appellate litigation is not exciting. Well, that’s not actually true.”

The article also discusses the nature of the issue on the merits. The online case summary page for the case describes the issue this way:

Does Evidence Code section 801, subdivision (b), permit a trial court to review the evidence an expert relied upon in reaching his or her conclusions in order to determine whether that evidence provides a reasonable basis for the expert’s opinion?

A pretty good summary of the implications of the question appears here, at the website of environmental law firm Barg Coffin Lewis & Trapp LLP.

Ms. Ernde’s article is behind the subscription wall at the Daily Journal, so if you are not a subscriber, you’ll need to get your hands on a physical copy of the November 5 edition. Thanks to Laura Ernde for alerting me to this.

UPDATE (11/8/07): Cal Bz Lit has a post on the merits of the evidentiary issue in the case. The post includes a link to his original post on the case (which includes a nice history on the development of expert witness “gatekeeping” authority of California judges).

UPDATE ( 12/14/07):┬áThe Supreme Court —┬ápart of it, anyway — has denied a request to republish the Court of Appeal opinion.