Colorado

State Senator’s Sponsorship Of Trial Lawyers Legislation Reveals Conflict of Interest

Policy

Colorado State Senator Morgan Carroll (D-Aurora), who was hired as a trial lawyer in January and has a history as a practicing attorney, has sponsored and provided vocal support for legislation that could directly benefit trial lawyers in Colorado. In what is possibly a rather large conflict of interest, Carroll has signed on as a primary sponsor to House Bill 1336, which is currently being debated on the Senate floor and is backed by lobbyists from top law firms in the state.

The bill, entitled the “Job Protection and Civil Rights Enforcement Act of 2013″, would make it easier for employees to sue their employers or places of business for alleged discrimination. Additionally, as described in the legislation, the bill “would allow the additional remedies of compensatory and punitive damages in employment discrimination cases brought under state law.”

The measure would be a boon for lawyers not only in that it would allow for a greater number of employment and discrimination lawsuits to be filed, it would also provide compensation for attorney fees and costs to be covered if the plaintiff were to prevail in the case.

The bill notes that “[c]urrent law does not permit an award of compensatory or punitive damages or attorney fees and costs to a plaintiff who prevails in a complaint before the Colorado civil rights commission or in a lawsuit alleging a discriminatory or unfair employment practice under state law”. HB 1303 would change this precedent.

Senator Carroll previously worked in employment law at a firm with her mother after she graduated and became an attorney. As of January 1, 2013, Carroll was hired by Bachus & Schanker as a practicing lawyer and as such would stand to benefit financially from the legislation. Carroll would handle cases directly associated with the types of suits that would be allowed if HB 1136 were to be passed. A press release from her law firm confirms this: “On January 1, 2013, Bachus & Schanker welcomed State Senator Morgan Carroll as an attorney in the law firm, working in the areas of mass torts, employment law, and social security.”

As outlined by both the Colorado Constitution and Senate Rules, legislators with conflicts of interests are expected, if not required, to recuse themselves and not vote on the measure before them.

Under Colorado Constitution Art. V, sec. 43, House Rule 21(c), Senate Rules 17(c) and 41, and Joint Rule 42, a member of the General Assembly who has a personal or financial interest in pending legislation is required to disclose the fact of that interest and may not vote on the legislation.

Specifically, Senate Rule 17(c) states that, “Any Senator having a personal or private interest in any question or bill pending, shall disclose such fact to the Senate and shall not vote thereon, and if the vote be by ayes and noes, such fact shall be entered in the journal.”

Ethical principles set forth in statute, such as C.R.S. 24-18-107, also provide guidance in matters of conflict of interest.

For example, former Speaker of the House Frank McNulty (R) recused himself earlier this year on HB 13-1121, a pharmaceutical bill, because he wife is a registered lobbyist for the pharmaceutical industry. Representative Garcia also excused himself from a vote on legislation in the current session. In other recent legislative sessions, Representatives Scott, Weissmann, and Baumgardner have all recused themselves on votes with potential conflicts of interest.

Despite statues and rules which provide ethics guidance, and historical precedent in the use of the same, Morgan not only plans to vote on the bill, but is a primary sponsor listed on the legislation and has spearheaded the debate in the Senate.

Sources inside the capitol have informed Media Trackers that Morgan Carroll will likely vote on the bill this evening in the Senate and may prove to be the deciding vote on the controversial measure.

Aside from her current role as a paid trial lawyer, Carroll’s political campaigns have, without fail, been supported by lawyers associations and lobbyists. Carroll has received nearly $3,000 directly from the Colorado Trial Lawyers Association. Lawyers and lobbyists are the number one financial backer of Carroll’s political campaigns, with the industry contributing $53,177 to her House and Senate races since 2004.

A total of 502 lobbyists have signed on to the bill, according to 30 pages of online filings with the Colorado Secretary of State’s office. All of the major lawyers associations are in favor of the bill including the Colorado Trial Lawyers Association, the Plaintiff Employment Lawyer’s Association, and the Colorado Bar Association.

In addition, key union groups such as 9to5, AFL-CIO, AFSCME, and the United Transportation Union have rallied behind the measure. One Colorado, the Bell Policy Center, and nearly a dozen other liberal advocacy organizations across the state have also hired lobbyists to argue in favor of the partisan legislation.

Those in opposition to the the bill are regional business alliances and chambers of commerce from all across the state including Denver, Aurora, Colorado Springs, Douglas County, and Jefferson County.

Follow Kyle Forti on Twitter: @kyleforti