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Missouri Supreme Court hears tobacco arguements

September 07, 2000
By: Kate Miller
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Attorneys for various interest groups seeking their own compensation from big tobacco asked the Missouri Supreme Court yesterday (Thursday) to prevent the state from dropping its lawsuit against tobacco companies.

The state must drop its case before it can begin collecting any of its $6.7 billion settlement -- with $190 million already waiting for Missouri in an escrow account.

The groups representing taxpayers, tobacco consumers, the operator of a Roman Catholic medical facilities and St. Louis City argue the state's settlement of the case will hinder their ability to seek their own rewards from the companies. Their argument has been denied by two lower courts.

In a somewhat unusual twist, the state attorney general found his position backed by the tobacco industry whose lawyer argued for the state's right to drop its lawsuit against his industry.

Attorney J. William Newbold, representing several of the largest tobacco companies, argued that the national settlement did not prevent private parties from bringing individual suits.

St. Louis city's hospital, he argued, is another matter. Newbold said if the city were allowed to bring its own suit and ultimately won, that settlement money would have to come from the state's $6.7 billion.

The court also heard arguments from a tobacco-related case concerning contingency-fee agreement between the attorney general and its private attorney, Thomas Strong.

State Sen. Peter Kinder, R-Cape Girardeau, argues that the fees should be paid through legislative appropriations instead of being paid by the tobacco companies directly to Strong. Strong estimates that out-of-pocket expenses alone exceed $6 million.

Attorney General Jay Nixon, who approved the contract with Strong, called the suit a "collassal waste of time," and said it was obvious that having the tobacco companies pay the attorney fees instead of the state was a good deal.

The session made history before the opening argument, after five Supreme Court Justices excused themselves from the case citing a rule requiring them to remove themselves from cases where "their impartiality might reasonably be questioned."

The justices have not cited specific reasons for stepping aside, although there have been pubilshed reports that involvement by a former state high court judge in the state's lawsuit led to the justice's decisions.

Four blacks and one white judge replaced the justices, making it the first time in Missouri history that blacks had a majority on Missouri's highest court.