With Republicans effectively in control of the Virginia governorship and both houses of the General Assembly, lawyers have been leaning to the red side in making political campaign contributions this year.
The trend holds even for trial lawyers, often seen as a financial backbone for Democrats.
The Virginia Trial Lawyers Association, for instance, donated 61 percent of its $60,500 in contributions this year to Republicans, as of Sept. 11.
The figures come from the Virginia Public Access Project, a nonprofit group that posts state campaign finance data online.
Legal industry a major player
The legal industry remains a heavy hitter in campaign finance, ranking fourth in contributions among categories of donors, after “Political,” finance/insurance and real estate/construction. VPAP reports a total of $3,689,919 in donations from the legal industry so far this year.
By comparison, the legal industry donated $8,874,826 for all of 2009, the last year with an election for Virginia governor. That year, the industry was third in generosity, behind “Political” and real estate/construction.
In VPAP’s database, the legal industry includes lobbyists, paralegals and “miscellaneous legal.” The database even breaks out “trial lawyers” as a separate category from “attorneys/law firms,” although some trial lawyers landed in the more general designation.
Trial lawyers give more to GOP
Top among the donors in the trial lawyer category is the Richmond personal injury firm of Allen, Allen, Allen & Allen, which has given $166,450 to committees backing candidates this year. Most of the money – 71 percent – is going to Republicans.
The firm gave $15,000 to the state Senate Republican caucus, but only $2,500 to the Senate’s Democratic caucus, the recent figures showed.
There’s no surprise about the overall skew to the Republican side, said Jack L. Harris, executive director of the Virginia Trial Lawyers Association. Referring to the VTLA’s choices, he acknowledged the party in power tends to get the support, and the GOP-dominated House of Delegates is up for election.
“The House obviously is heavily Republican. The committees we work with are chaired by Republicans,” Harris said.
Spending decisions by the VTLA’s political action committee are made by a 21-member board of governors, Harris explained. As the group meets and approves other donations, the balance between Republicans and Democrats could change.
“We support anyone who shares our goals,” Harris said. “We have been bipartisan for a long time.”
The VTLA agenda for the next Assembly session will be limited, Harris said, because lawmakers made it clear they did not want to revisit tort-related issues sparked by a late blooming tort reform movement last year.
“We will show up. We will be there. But we’re not going to bring a big bag expecting the courts committees to play Santa Claus,” Harris said.
Lawyers elsewhere back Democrats
A number of out-of-state lawyers sent political money to Virginia, all of it for Democrats.
Baltimore trial lawyer Peter G. Angelos donated $250,000 to Terry McAuliffe’s campaign for governor.
Florida real estate lawyer Richard R. Swann gave $100,005 to the McAuliffe campaign.
The Philadelphia-based firm of Barrack, Rodos & Bacine – which handles shareholder claims against corporations – donated $100,000 to the Democratic Party of Virginia.
The Orlando, Fl., firm of Morgan & Morgan gave $56,733 to McAuliffe.
Big firms tilt Republican
Virginia’s big law firms are in the mix as well. Williams Mullen has written checks totaling $126,158 so far this year. As with the VTLA, 61 percent of the money went to Republicans.
Hunton & Williams gave $118,322, with 60 percent to Republicans.
McGuireWoods donated $88,820, with 57 percent to Republicans.
Eckert Seamans is next on the big firm donor list, but they sought a more even-handed profile. The firm gave $82,841 so far this year, 50 percent to Democrats and 48 percent to Republicans. The 2-percent gap represents a $300 donation to Dwight Jones’ campaign for mayor. Jones was re-elected last year.
Other big firms making donations are ReedSmith LLP, Troutman Sanders and Christian & Barton – all favoring Republicans in their largess, but all giving to Democrats as well.
The numbers are updated frequently – some changed before press time. Readers are likely to find variations.
Little guidance from the rule book
There are few explicit rules about lawyers making political donations. The American Bar Association’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct include a measure barring lawyers and firms from government work if their political contributions greased the skids.
The Supreme Court of Virginia has not adopted any variation of that rule for the Virginia Rules of Professional Conduct.
Two other rules might cover some of that territory, said James M. McCauley, Virginia State Bar Ethics Counsel.
Rule 8.4 (d) makes it misconduct for a lawyer to claim the ability to improperly influence a public official or legislative body.
When a lawyer serves as a public official, Rule 1.11 bars the lawyer from using the position to gain improper advantage.
Virginia has avoided one major source of political conflicts of interest by not having popular elections of judges, McCauley said. In states that do, judge candidates routinely solicit contributions from lawyers who practice before them.
“That’s one of the beauties of Virginia,” McCauley said.
For firms contemplating contributions, McCauley said it is a good idea to have a committee that reviews proposals from candidates seeking contributions and makes a record of the deliberation. If a favored candidate wins office, the record might prove useful in doing a conflict check for any government work that might follow.