Bush’s Trial With The Trial Lawyers

By Morton Kondracke
The 2000 presidential election could be Armageddon on the tort reform issue, with the nation’s trial lawyers spending vast sums to defeat their nemesis, Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R).

Bush pushed a sweeping legal-reform package through the Texas legislature in his first term as governor. He tried to raise taxes on law firms. Bush also fought the award of $3.3 billion to the lawyers who negotiated Texas’ $17 billion settlement with tobacco companies. And he makes it clear that tort reform is a major item on his presidential agenda.

According to one study, trial lawyers gave 78 percent of all contributions to the Texas Democratic Party during the 1998 election cycle, when Bush was up for re-election.

* Tobacco Five refers to Walter Umphrey, John O’Quinn, John Eddie Williams, Wayne Reaud, Harold Nix, their spouses and partners.
** Transfers from National Democratic Sources consist of contributions to the Texas Democratic Party from the DNC (Democratic National Committee), the DLCC (Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee), the DCCC (Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee), and the DSCC (Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee). In the 1998 election cycle, the Tobacco Five and other Texas Plaintiff Lawyers contributed in excess of $1.8 million to national democratic sources.

The study, by the pro-business group Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse, found that the five main Texas lawyers who negotiated with tobacco companies on the state’s behalf – retained by the former Democratic state attorney general, not Bush – gave the Democratic Party $1.8 million.

Other plaintiffs’ lawyers gave $929,000 and $1.7 million came from trial lawyers through the Democratic National Committee. All other donors gave $1.3 million combined.

Now, as one of the biggest sources of money for Democrats nationally – and worried about legislation Bush might support if he were elected president – trial lawyers can be expected to place huge sums in Democratic coffers in 2000.

And they have money in abundance, thanks to big past judgements against asbestos companies and even bigger settlements with tobacco companies.

According to former Reagan White House official Michael Horowitz, director of the Hudson Institute’s Project for Civil Justice Reform, in three states alone – Florida, Mississippi and Texas – trial lawyers are due to collect $8.2 billion in $500 million annual payouts.

Nationally, Horowitz figures, they could collect at least $20 billion – some of which they could use to build their political power.

Through its PAC, the lawyers’ lead lobbying organization, the American Trial Lawyers Association, gave $2.4 million to federal candidates in 1998, $2.1 million of it to Democrats, about the same as tobacco company PACs gave to Republicans.

All law firm PACs gave $7 million, of which 62 percent went to Democrats. But that understates the lawyers’ giving because many contribute as individuals.

For instance, Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos, who made his money trying asbestos cases, gave $305,000 to various Democratic Party entities in 1998, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

A study by a business-financed group, the American Tort Reform Association, showed that between January 1990 and June 1994, plaintiffs lawyers contributed $17.3 million to state candidates in California, Texas and Alabama, dwarfing the sums the Democratic and Republican national committees gave to federal candidates – and also the amounts given by labor and auto companies.

Tobacco Five refers to Walter Umphrey, John O’Quinn, John Eddie Williams, Wayne Reaud, Harold Nix, their spouses and partners.

“Trial lawyers dominate the Democratic Party,” Horowitz says. “They are in the process of neutralizing the Republican Party, and in some states they will be able to completely control the elected judiciary and be able to pick and choose the places they want to sue and blackmail industries into settlement.”

Horowitz claims that, after collecting exorbitant fees from tobacco companies – which will only slightly lower Big Tobacco profits, but permanently immunize them from lawsuits and send their stocks soaring – the trial bar is moving on to guns and eventually will start suing fast-food companies for the health damage caused by fatty foods.

Regardless of the long term, there’s no question that trial lawyers have it in for Bush. Tort reform was one of the four items on his election platform when he ran for governor in 1994, and it’s back in his campaign for president.

In his debut speeches in Iowa and New Hampshire last week, Bush referred to tort reform as a policy he’d pursue – along with lower taxes and free trade – to keep prosperity going.

In conversation, he makes it clear that he regards trial lawyers as a group as part of his opposition. He dismissed the critical findings of one Texas anti-poverty research group, for instance, by saying, “Don’t listen to them; they get all their money from the trial lawyers.”

In 1995, the Texas legislature passed a series of reforms, which Bush aides say he’d try to duplicate at the federal level – including limits on defendants’ liability to their proportion of responsibility, venue-shopping, punitive damages and frivolous lawsuits.

Significantly, the Texas reforms also included campaign finance reform. Contributions to candidates for the Texas Supreme Court were capped at $5,000 and lesser limits were imposed for lower court candidates.

Bush and other Republicans don’t advocate limits for other offices, but with pro-Democrat trial lawyers coming in for multibillion-dollar paydays, the GOP might want to think about it.

Tort reform – including product liability legislation, medical malpractice and auto insurance reform – tends to occupy the back burner in Washington because it routinely gets blocked by Democrats and some Republicans friendly to the trial lawyers.

But the prospects are that it won’t be back burner as a 2000 campaign issue. It will be huge.

Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill.

Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse

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