CHARLESTON -– The recommendation of West Virginia's two U.S. Senators of Kanawha Circuit Judge Irene Berger to the federal judgeship held by retiring U.S. District Judge David Faber is being applauded by a statewide legal reform group.
Steve Cohen, executive director of West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse, highlights Berger's ruling in landmark tobacco litigation that West Virginia Attorney General Darrell McGraw did not have the authority to hire private lawyers on a contingency fee basis; lawyers who eventually collected more than $33 million in such fees at public expense.
"Judge Berger is one of the few public officials who stood up to McGraw's questionable ethics," Cohen said. "After McGraw defiantly ignored her, the legislative auditor said he acted outside the law."
WV CALA has been critical of McGraw's hiring practices in, what it says is, "a seemingly pay-to-play arrangement no different than that associated with the governors of Illinois and New Mexico."
Cohen also notes that McGraw names lawyers to file lawsuits on behalf of the state who help bankroll his political campaigns.
Aside from Berger's ruling in the tobacco cases, Cohen's organization has questioned why McGraw needs to hire private lawyers at all when West Virginia taxpayers already provide him with a legal staff of 200.
WV CALA has called for a Sunshine law to hold the attorney general accountable for such hires, to dispel any perception that McGraw is rewarding campaign contributors with no-bid contracts.
In December, two West Virginia law firms which contributed to McGraw's campaigns and were named by him to sue two financial services firms cashed in on a share of $3.9 million in legal fees when they settled the cases. One of those firms hosted a fundraiser weeks before McGraw stood for re-election in November.
Cohen also noted that just hours after McGraw's 2004 re-election, he settled a lawsuit against a drug company from which campaign-contributing lawyers he hired shared in a $3.3 million legal fee.
"Judge Berger's respect for the law makes her most qualified to sit on the federal bench," Cohen said. "Recommendation of her by West Virginia's senators is a positive step for the federal judiciary."