Philip Morris USA is seeking to disqualify one of the law firms representing smokers in a class-action case against the tobacco company because of a conflict of interest.
Chicago firm Power Rogers & Smith was hired by St. Louis lawyers who are the lead attorneys in the cigarette suit now before the Illinois Supreme Court. The issue is that Power Rogers & Smith also represents Supreme Court Justice Robert Thomas in a lawsuit pending in Kane County.
The conflict is likely to cause Thomas to remove himself from the high-profile cigarette suit, on appeal after a Downstate trial judge ordered Philip Morris to pay $10.1 billion–a state record–to Illinois smokers for deceiving them about dangers of light cigarettes.
But the cigarette maker wants to keep Thomas, a former placekicker for the Chicago Bears, on the case. He is one of two Republicans on the seven-member Supreme Court.
Philip Morris argues in a motion before the Supreme Court that the St. Louis firm, Korein Tillery, brought in Power Rogers & Smith knowing that it would result in Thomas’ recusal. The company said the hiring “gives rise to an appearance of impropriety.”
Lawyers at Korein Tillery could not be reached for comment. But Joseph Power Jr. said Philip Morris’ legal maneuver strikes “below the belt.”
“They know they are going to be in for a fight, and they don’t like it,” said Power, a prominent personal injury lawyer in Chicago. “We have a very fine appellate division. It’s not unusual for firms going before the Supreme Court to bring in lawyers with experience in appeals.”
The first appearance of the Power firm in the court record, according to Philip Morris’ court papers, was on July 12, when the smokers’ lawyers filed their briefs with the Supreme Court in response to the company’s case for appeal.
Power said lawyers at Korein Tillery first contacted his firm last September to assist them with the appeal. The two firms signed a formal agreement in early November–before Justice Thomas contacted the Power firm, Power said. The Power firm represents Thomas in a libel case filed in January against the Kane County Chronicle.
Before the motion filed late Monday, Philip Morris’ attorneys tried a different tactic to keep Thomas on the case.
Last week, former Illinois governor James Thompson, who is chairman of Winston & Strawn, one of Philip Morris’ outside law firms, asked Power to waive the conflict-of-interest rule that affects Thomas. Power declined and also refused to withdraw from the suit when asked by Thompson, according to a letter from Thompson to Power that was included in the court papers.