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“Hot Coffee” Documents Chamber of Commerce Campaign to Unseat Judges Opposed to “Tort Reform”

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The documentary Hot Coffee tells the story of former Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Oliver Diaz. Despite fierce opposition from big business, Diaz won re-election to the bench. Hot Coffee reveals how Diaz was then criminally prosecuted on false charges to taint his reputation. He was forced off the bench for three years to fight the charges and was acquitted. [includes rush transcript]

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StoryJan 25, 2011“Hot Coffee” Film Explores How Corporations Are Spending Millions and Spinning the Story to Alter Our Nation’s Civil Justice System
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Susan, why don’t you introduce the man sitting next to you?

SUSAN SALADOFF: This is Judge Oliver Diaz. Judge Diaz actually was a justice of the Mississippi State Supreme Court until he was targeted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for defeat because he wasn’t corporate enough.

AMY GOODMAN: OK, Judge Diaz, tell us your story and what happened.

OLIVER DIAZ: Well, I think people are very familiar with elections in America, and for years you’ve had corporations donating to the executive branch, presidents and governors, of the legislative branch, your House of Representatives and Senate. You’ve had massive amounts of funding, and people expect that when you have elections.

The judiciary, the judicial branch of government, has been separate from that for years and years. But what we’ve seen lately are these corporations coming in, putting money into judicial races, and they’re promoting candidates who tend to support corporate interest rather than a fair, level playing field for average persons. They’re actually putting money into the system in order to get people serving on the bench who would rule in the best interests of corporations rather than a fair judiciary.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about exactly what happened to you. You were running for your position —


AMY GOODMAN: — judge.


AMY GOODMAN: Who was your opponent?

OLIVER DIAZ: Well, in Mississippi, Supreme Court elections are — Supreme Court races are by popular election. And I was appointed by the governor when there was a vacancy on the court and then had to stand for election. Folks had a chance to observe my judicial record, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce decided that they could get a better candidate for their interests rather than me. And they came into Mississippi at a time when this had never been done before and put millions of dollars into the election against me to support my opponent. It’s sort of —- if you’re familiar with the Citizens United case at the U.S. Supreme Court recently, corporations were able to contribute massive amounts of money without having to disclose where those funds come from or even how much money they’ve put into the races in Mississippi. And so, I was faced with having to run an election with massive amounts of money coming in against me and having to raise the resources on my own to [inaudible] -—

AMY GOODMAN: Yet, you did have to disclose who gave you money.

OLIVER DIAZ: I had to disclose every single penny that I raised. I had to disclose who I raised it from, how I spent it. Yet, corporations are able to come in and not have to disclose where their money comes from or how they spend it. Yeah, it’s really a disadvantage for candidates. And it’s going to start happening all across the country. This is not unique to Mississippi. This is the trend that’s going to happen across the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: Yet, you won.

OLIVER DIAZ: I won. I did. I did win my first election.

AMY GOODMAN: Though, as your wife says in the film, what perhaps was one of the happiest days in your lives turned out to be one of the most catastrophic in the end.

OLIVER DIAZ: Exactly. We were able to prevail. Actually, it was a very close election, and it went into a runoff. There were three candidates, and we were in the top two, and we had to face a runoff. We ran for — in the election, which was three weeks after the general election, and were able to win in the runoff. But after the election, the U.S. attorney, who was appointed by George Bush — was a Republican congressman, a guy who had gotten defeated for Congress, and George Bush put him in for U.S. attorney — he then began to investigate Democratic donors to judicial races in Mississippi and began a prosecution of me at that time, a prosecution based upon my campaign contributions.

AMY GOODMAN: And indicted you?

OLIVER DIAZ: And indicted, yes. I was indicted for bribery, actually, based upon the campaign contributions, because I had to disclose my campaign contributions. They were able to see who donated. They looked at my largest contributor, which was a very good friend of mine named Paul Minor. He was actually a major Democratic donor across the United States. He was one of John Edwards’ largest contributors at the time. And they began to investigate —

AMY GOODMAN: He co-signed a loan that you needed to take out to challenge the millions that your opponent was getting.

OLIVER DIAZ: Exactly. We weren’t able to raise enough to combat these millions that were coming in, and so we took out a loan from the bank. Mr. Minor co-signed that loan for my campaign. Because he was such a good friend of mine, I had never voted on a single case that he had before the Mississippi Supreme Court or me while I was on the bench. Yet, we were being investigated for bribery. I thought it was — I thought it would be an open-and-shut case. I said, “There’s no way they could even pursue this. They’re going to look at the record, and they’re going to see that I’ve never even voted on his cases.”

AMY GOODMAN: But this took you off the bench.

OLIVER DIAZ: Took me off the bench for over three years.

AMY GOODMAN: And who replaced you?

OLIVER DIAZ: Well, I had to stand for election again. And again, the Chamber came in, put massive amounts of money against me, and I was defeated in the second election, because of — well, you could imagine the publicity that I had received while I was on the bench, and it was very difficult to overcome that.

AMY GOODMAN: What happened in the trial?

OLIVER DIAZ: I was completely acquitted in the trial. The jury found me not guilty of everything.

AMY GOODMAN: How long was the trial?

OLIVER DIAZ: The trial lasted about three months.

AMY GOODMAN: How long was the jury deliberation?

OLIVER DIAZ: The jury deliberation in the first trial, it lasted for a little while. We were completely acquitted. Three days after I was acquitted, I was re-indicted again. The federal prosecutor said, “Well, if it’s not bribery or campaign finance laws, he must have — he must have not properly disclosed this on his income, so we’re going to indict him for income tax evasion now.” I was tried again, completely acquitted. Jury was out for about 15 minutes and found me not guilty of everything again.

AMY GOODMAN: But you lost the race.

OLIVER DIAZ: But did lose the race in the second time, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Did your opponent — did the original opponent end up in your seat?

OLIVER DIAZ: The original opponent, actually, I think he probably fared a little better. After I defeated him in the election, George Bush nominated him for a federal judgeship, and he’s now serving as a federal judge.

AMY GOODMAN: Did Karl Rove play any role in this? Because we have followed the case of the former Alabama governor, Don Siegelman —


AMY GOODMAN: — who went to jail, and Rove played a key role.

OLIVER DIAZ: Yes. You would be surprised at the similarities in the cases. We’ve since learned that this is sort of the MO that the Rove and the — his machine actually used. They came into the state of Texas and took over the Supreme Court there. Alabama, they did the same thing. And they used that as a launching pad to sort of pick off state Supreme Court justices all around the country, using that model.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much for being with us. People can learn more about this case by seeing the film Hot Coffee that has premiered here at Sundance. Thirty seconds, Susan Saladoff, before we go to break and come back to the last family that you focus on, a very painful story of medical malpractice, and the whole family will join us, but what you hope to accomplish in this film?

SUSAN SALADOFF: Well, I want this film to get out to a general public, so that people can at least have their minds opened to another side of this story of our civil justice system, so that they can vote intelligently, so that they can talk about it intelligently. I want the truth to finally come out, so that hopefully people can protect their civil rights and protect their access to the courts.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Judge — former Judge Oliver Diaz and Susan Saladoff, a first-time filmmaker with this remarkable film Hot Coffee. You can go to This is Democracy Now! When we come back, well, stay there, listen to this story. We’ll be back in a minute.

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