Reporting from Boise, Idaho — Like city boosters competing to host the Olympics, hundreds of lawyers representing gulf oil spill victims converged on this mountain town Thursday, promoting their Southern cities as the best equipped and the most convenient venue to handle about 300 lawsuits tied to the disaster.
Their arguments before seven federal judges — who will make the decision on where the lawsuits will be heard and who will preside over them — is the critical first step in what is expected to be a long and complicated legal battle over damages caused by the nation's worst oil spill.
Touting New Orleans over Houston and Miami over Mobile, Ala., the lawyers offered up air-traffic connections, highway accessibility and the plentiful range of food and lodging options, from five-star hotels to $5 po' boy sandwiches. Some said federal judges in their districts could devote more time to the cases.
The payoff should be high for the chosen jurisdiction, with thousands of players expected to hole up at the legal epicenter for weeks or months to collect evidence and testify. It is expected to take years, if not decades, to work through the caseload, providing work for the local lawyers likely to last throughout their careers.
San Francisco attorney Elizabeth J. Cabraser said the most important decision before the panel, however, is selecting a "jurist beyond reproach."
"Real doesn't matter here — it's the perception," she said of complaints by both plaintiffs and defendants that some gulf-area judges have conflicts of interest because of oil-industry investments and connections.
Amid the crowd of attorneys and TV crews flooding the corridors after the hearing, Stephen G. Larsen, a former federal judge from Los Angeles now representing spill victims, said: "This courtroom illustrates what it is going to be like in terms of media attention and economic value to whoever wins."
While the courtroom full of power suits and Southern drawls resounded with location sales pitches, half a dozen local protesters lofted signs outside, chanting "Spill, Baby, Spill," and "Don't Let BP Buy a Judge."
Andrew J. Langan, representing BP, reiterated that his client wants the cases sent to the Southern District of Texas for pretrial proceedings, asserting that "the key witnesses and key documents are by far located in Houston."
BP, Transocean Ltd., Halliburton and Cameron — all defendants in the suits for their roles in the rig explosion and well blowout — had already petitioned the panel to send the docket specifically to U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes.
Most lawyers for the gulf victims opposed sending the legal work to Houston, contending it would be expensive and disruptive for their clients to travel there. In court filings prepared for the Thursday hearing some have also questioned the objectivity of some of the judges with ties to the oil companies.
But Mark Lanier, whose Houston firm represents 45,000 people alleging harm from the spill, brushed off those suggestions. He ticked off costly judgments against energy industry giants like Exxon and Enron from the district's courtrooms, insisting "Houston hates the oil companies."
Justice Department lawyer Stephen Flynn told the hearing by the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation that the government wanted the cases consolidated in New Orleans, the venue also preferred by the biggest plaintiffs' groups.
"Time is of the essence here," said Cabraser, urging the panel to act swiftly in assigning an outside judge. Damage claims against Exxon Valdez took 20 years to litigate, she said, noting that "a third of my clients were dead when it came time to distribute the compensation."
Judge John G. Heyburn, the panel chairman, peppered the lawyers with questions that suggested he was leaning toward assigning the cases to a single gulf-area judge rather than dividing them up or importing someone from afar.
Heyburn also appeared displeased when Langan and other defendant lawyers put the court on notice that they would continue to push for recusal of Judge Carl Barbier of New Orleans — one of the few from that 12-judge bench who hasn't had to step down because of industry ties or investments.
"I think the judges were offended. They don't like aspersions cast on their own," New Orleans environmental attorney Allan Kanner observed with a chuckle as he left the courtroom.
The panel, meeting in Boise as part of a regular rotating schedule, is expected to make its decisions in August.