By Giff Johnson
(Pacific Magazine, July/August 2000)
Charging that Marshall Islands High Court Judge H. Dee Johnson is helping the Marshall Islands government in its efforts to "extort huge sums of money" from the U.S. tobacco industry, four American tobacco firms have filed an appeal seeking Supreme Court intervention to call a halt to the high-stakes court battle.
"The High Court's plainly erroneous orders refusing to put a stop to this legally meritless lawsuit have the clear and unmistakable effect of assisting the government in its efforts to abuse the judicial process so as to extort a settlement of claims in what the government now alleges to be a $20-billion case," stated the motion filed for Philip Morris Inc., Philip Morris Products Inc., Brown and Williamson Tobacco Corp. and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.
The firms are seeking a writ of mandamus (or order) from the Supreme Court instructing the High Court to:
- Dismiss all common law claims by the government against the tobacco companies;
- prohibit the government from continuing to use 1997 and 1998 amendments to the Consumer Protection Law and Health Fund Law, respectively, on a retroactive basis regarding the conduct of the tobacco companies prior to the amendments coming into effect;
- strike from the government's complaint a paragraph in which the government is seeking about $100-million for the construction of hospitals throughout the country.
The companies said that "immediate intervention also is required to preserve the appearance of impartiality of this nation's judiciary in a closely watched case in which the government is seeking a massive monetary recovery to itself in its own court and which tests the independence of the Marshall Islands judiciary."
But, attorneys for the Marshall Islands said the tobacco industry "is acting like a bully" in trying to get the Supreme Court to throw out the lawsuit.
"Tobacco companies took profits out of the Marshalls and left costs here," said Don Howarth, a Los Angeles-base attorney for the Marshalls. "It is time for them to pay the costs."
Howarth's partner, attorney Suzelle Smith, said "the tobacco industry's strategy is to drown us (with motions) before we get to the trial so we can't get to the merits of the case." Smith described the tobacco industry's action as "a desperation motion" that is trying to "short-circuit the legal process and deny the government its day in court."
Howarth noted that the U.S. states got a $200-billion settlement from the industry. "They can get a fair trial here, but they don't want it," he said.
The companies complained about Judge Johnson for dismissing several of their motions without providing any legal basis or reasoning, and a schedule leading up to a planned Jan. 15, 2001, trial that provides for all motions to be dealt with during a November status conference.
They said Johnson is preventing them from getting "a full and fair hearing" and that by setting a pretrial schedule, it "sets the government's claims on for trial while virtually ensuring that petitioners' legal arguments will get no serious consideration, particularly those arguments that would dispose of the government's claims in their entirety."
The companies' motion called the $20-billion the government is seeking "astonishing." (It translates to $400,000 for each resident [and juror] in the country.)
The Marshall Islands has asked for a jury trial, which the companies say is the first time there would be a civil jury trial in the nation's history.
The case "should, and must, be brought to a halt," the companies said.