Angelos firm asked judge to back bill Kaplan says he sees no conflict, but took no stand

March 11, 1996|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer C. Fraser Smith contributed to this article.

The administrative judge of Baltimore Circuit Court says the firm of attorney Peter G. Angelos sought his support for legislation that could affect punitive damages awarded in thousands of asbestos cases pending in the city court. FFTC Last week, Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan said that he once considered taking a position on the bill. After the initial contact, he asked an Angelos attorney to have other lawyers for asbestos victims send him letters about whether they had ever collected on a judgment for punitive damages on behalf of their clients.

When he received letters at the end of last month and learned that none of the lawyers had, he took no position on the bill now before the General Assembly. If passed, it immediately would improve the prospects of workers seeking to collect millions of dollars for asbestos-related illnesses. Mr. Angelos' firm represents many of those victims.

Mr. Angelos said Friday he had no expectation that Judge Kaplan would support the bill, but that he simply helped him gather information.

Although Judge Kaplan denied that there would have been an ethical problem if he had taken a position on the bill, at least one lawyer suggested otherwise in a letter to the judge last week.

Edward F. Houff noted the judge's administrative responsibilities "in connection with the thousands of asbestos cases in the court" and said "that would seem to militate against your becoming involved to any extent in pending legislation" proposed by Mr. Angelos.

Mr. Houff, whose Baltimore firm, Church & Houff, defends more than 20 companies involved in asbestos litigation, also said: "I know of no current issue in any asbestos case currently pending before you in any specific case that would have required or intimated a need for the information contained in the letters that were sent to you."

Mr. Houff to disclose "the full circumstances" involving his role in soliciting the letters from plaintiffs' attorneys. Two of those letters urged the judge to support the bill.

In a short reply, Judge Kaplan wrote that "before I consider testifying on any piece of legislation, including Senate Bill 607, I try to ascertain all the facts." He said that after doing that, he had decided not to take a position on the bill.

In an interview, Judge Kaplan said he saw no conflict in his inquiries about the punitive-damages issue because he does not handle the asbestos cases. He said the cases are assigned to two judges who handle assignment and other aspects of the litigation.

"I could have gone down either way, and it wouldn't have been improper either way to express an opinion on punitive damages," Judge Kaplan said. "I don't have to advise the world that I'm going down there to testify. In any case, I didn't do it.

"I think I'm not going to comment on [Mr. Houff's] letter other than to say I disagree with it as to its merits, and I disagree with it as to its tone," Judge Kaplan said.

Patricia Kasputys, a lawyer in Mr. Angelos' firm, said she attached copies of the letters to written testimony submitted by the firm to a Senate committee in support of the bill.

Peter T. Nicholl, another attorney who represents asbestos victims and who wrote a letter to Judge Kaplan, said Mr. Houff was making "mountains out of molehills. That was just fact-finding information as to the prevalence of punitive damage awards in [the judge's] court."

Pub Date: 3/11/96

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