MIAMI — More than half of the federal judges in districts where the bulk of Gulf oil spill-related lawsuits are pending have financial connections to the oil and gas industry, complicating the task of finding judges without conflicts to hear the cases, an Associated Press analysis of judicial financial disclosure reports shows.
Thirty-seven of the 64 active or senior judges in key Gulf Coast districts in Louisiana, Texas, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida have links to oil, gas and related energy industries, including some who own stocks or bonds in BP PLC, Halliburton or Transocean — and others who regularly list receiving royalties from oil and gas production wells, according to the reports judges must file each year. The AP reviewed 2008 disclosure forms, the most recent available.
Those three companies are named as defendants in virtually all of the 150-plus lawsuits seeking damages, mainly for economic losses in the fishing, seafood, tourism and related industries, that have been filed over the growing oil spill since the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded April 20, killing 11 workers. Attorneys for the companies and those suing them are pushing for consolidation of the cases in one court, with BP recommending Texas and others advocating for Louisiana and other states.
A Washington-based federal judicial panel is scheduled to meet next month to decide whether to consolidate the cases and, if so, which judge should be assigned the monumental task. The job would include such key pretrial decisions as certifying a large class of plaintiffs to seek damages, a potential multibillion-dollar settlement, whether to dismiss the cases and what documents BP and the other companies might be forced to produce in court.