The Outer Limits (and Beyond?) of Ex Parte Advocacy of Federal Judges

As every trial lawyer knows, people sometimes reveal important facts in curious ways, incorporated in their own biased narrative of events.  Recently, I heard a recorded lecture about expert witnesses, by a plaintiffs’ lawyer, who revealed a damning fact about a judge.  The lawyer clearly thought that this fact was commendatory, but in fact revealed another effort of scientific advocates and zealots to subvert the neutrality of federal judges.  See In re School Asbestos Litigation, 977 F.2d 764 (3d Cir. 1992) (describing effort by plaintiffs’ lawyers and the late Dr. Irving Selikoff to corrupt state and federal judges with one-sided ex parte presentations of their views at the so-called Third-Wave Conference).

Anthony Z. Roisman is the Managing Partner of the National Legal Scholars Law Firm.  This firm has a roster of affiliated law professors who serve as consultants for plaintiffs in environmental and tort cases. (Some other participants in this law firm include Jay M. Feinman, Lucinda M. Finley, Neil Vidmar, and Richard W. Wright.) Roisman has been active in various plaintiff organizations, including serving as the head of the ATLA Section on Toxic, Environmental & Pharmaceutical Torts (STEP). 

Roisman lectures frequently for the American Law Institute on expert witness issues. Recently, I was listening to an mp3 recording of one of Roisman’s lectures on expert witnesses in environmental litigation.  Given Roisman’s practice and politics, I was not surprised to hear him praise Judge Rothstein’s opinion that refused to exclude plaintiffs’ expert witnesses’ causation opinions in the PPA litigation.  See In re Phenylpropanolamine Prod. Liab. Litig., 289 F. 2d 1230 (2003).  What stunned me, however, was his statement that Judge Rothstein issued her opinion “fresh from a seminar at the Tellus Institute,” which he described as “organization set up by scientist trying to bring common sense to interpretation of science.”

Post hoc; ergo propter hoc?

Judge Rothstein’s PPA decision stands as a landmark of judicial gullibility.  Judge Rothstein conducted hearings and entertaining extensive briefings on the reliability of plaintiffs’ expert witnesses’ opinions, which were based largely upon one epidemiologic study, known as the “Yale Hemorrhagic Stroke Project (HSP).”  In the end, publication in a prestigious peer-reviewed journal proved to be a proxy for independent review: “The prestigious NEJM published the HSP results, further substantiating that the research bears the indicia of good science.” Id. at 1239 (citing Daubert II for the proposition that peer review shows the research meets the minimal criteria for good science). The admissibility challenges were refused.

Ultimately, the HSP study received much more careful analysis before juries, which uniformly returned verdicts for the defense. After one of the early defense verdicts, plaintiffs’ counsel challenged the defendant’s reliance upon underlying data in the HSP, which went behind the peer-reviewed publication, and which showed that the peer review failed to prevent serious errors.  The trial court rejected the plaintiffs’ request for a new trial, and spoke to the significance of challenging the superficial significance of peer review of the key study relied upon by plaintiffs in the PPA litigation:

“I mean, you could almost say that there was some unethical activity with that Yale Study.  It’s real close.  I mean, I — I am very, very concerned at the integrity of those researchers.”

“Yale gets — Yale gets a big black eye on this.”

O’Neill v. Novartis AG, California Superior Court, Los Angeles Cty., Transcript of Oral Argument on Post-Trial Motions, at 46 -47 (March 18, 2004) (Hon. Anthony J. Mohr)

Roisman’s endorsement of the PPA decision may have been purely result-oriented jurisprudence, but what of his enthusiasm for the “learning” that Judge Rothstein received at the Tellus Institute.  Tell us, what is this Tellus Institute?

In 2003, roughly contemporaneously with Judge Rothstein’s PPA decision, SKAPP published a jeremiad against the Daubert decision, with support from none other than the Tellus Group. See Daubert: The Most Influential Supreme Court Ruling You’ve Never Heard Of;  A Publication of the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy, coordinated by the Tellus Institute (2003). The Tellus Institute website tells us very little specific detail about the Institute’s projects, other than stating some vague and pious goals.  The alignment, however, of the Tellus Institute with David Michael’s SKAPP, which was created with plaintiffs’ lawyers’ funding, certainly seems like a dubious indicator of neutrality and scientific commitment.  SeeSkapp a Lot” (April 30, 2010).

We might get a better idea of the organization from the Tellus membership.

Richard Clapp and David Ozonoff are both regular testifiers for plaintiffs in so-called toxic tort and environmental litigation. In an article published about the time of the PPA decision, Clapp and Ozonoff acknowledged having benefited from discussions with colleagues at the Tellus Institute.  See Richard W. Clapp & David Ozonoff, “Environment and Health: Vital Intersection or Contested Territory?” 30 Am. J. L. & Med. 189, 189 (2004) (“This Article also benefited from discussions with colleagues in the project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy at Tellus Institute, in Boston, Massachusetts.”).

In the infamous case of Selikoff and Motley and their effort to subvert the neutrality of Judge James M. Kelly in the school district asbestos litigation, the conspiracy was detected in time for a successful recusal effort. In re School Asbestos Litigation, 977 F.2d 764 (3d Cir. 1992).  Unfortunately, in the PPA litigation, there was no disclosure of the efforts by the advocacy group, Tellus Institute, to undermine the neutrality of a federal judge. 

Outside observers will draw their own inferences about whether Tellus was an “honest broker” of scientific advice to Judge Rothstein. One piece of evidence may be SKAPP’s website, which contains a page about Richard Clapp’s courtroom advocacy in the PPA litigation. Additional evidence comes from Clapp’s leadership role in Physicians for Social Responsibility, and his own characterization of himself as a healthcare professional advocate. Clapp, a member of Tellus, was an expert witness for plaintiffs in PPA cases.

Was Clapp present at the Tellus Institute meeting attended by Judge Rothstein? History will judge whether the Tellus Institute participated in corrupting the administration of justice.

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