“November Election A Lawyer’s Delight”

by Ted Frank on August 11, 2008

Daniel Fisher usually understands legal issues and has done some good reporting about trial-lawyer abuses, so I was very disappointed in today’s Forbes.com story (which quotes me about Obama and CAFA). Most notably, it’s not true that tort reform is a “catchall phrase for legislative measures designed to make it harder for individuals to sue businesses”–many tort reforms make it easier for individuals with legitimate claims to sue businesses. Tort reforms are simply measures to improve the accuracy and efficiency of the civil justice system; they’re opposed by trial lawyers because they derive billions of dollars of wealth from inaccuracies and inefficiencies in the civil justice system, and supported by businesses and consumers that are the victims of such inaccuracies and inefficiencies.

The article also inaccurately characterizes the Obama-Clinton medical malpractice legislation, and furthers the idea of “Kennedy is a moderate,” blurring the role of the Supreme Court by implicitly endorsing the liberal idea of it as a political superlegislature rather than a judicial body with an obligation to follow the law. The focus on anti-preemption legislation, as opposed to some of the dozens of other pro-trial-lawyer-lobby bills pending in this Congress and likely to be renewed next Congress, is unusual. (Separately, I disagree with Jim Copland; I don’t think McCain would hesitate to veto the giveaways to the trial-lawyer lobby if they’re in single-purpose bills and not attached as hidden amendments to omnibus legislation.)

I’m less surprised than Fisher and Bill Childs that Obama is getting money from defense firms, or, more accurately, attorneys who work at defense firms. The legal establishment is overwhelmingly liberal (hence the 3:1 fundraising advantage Obama has), and many defense attorneys are perfectly happy with a status quo that requires companies to pay them millions of dollars to continue doing business. (Some are too happy, and have vocally supported ABA resolutions that would harm their clients–something their clients should pay closer attention to.)

While plaintiffs’ law firm contributions are often coordinated (sometimes a bit illegally, as when Tab Turner’s firm and Geoffrey Fieger’s firm were caught reimbursing their employees for donating to John Edwards), it’s a mistake to think the same thing happens in the defense bar, where attorneys are donating on an individual basis because they perceive future government administration (or Article III) jobs of a certain political caliber as pay-to-play or because they’re otherwise simply interested in the political process. Kirkland & Ellis may have tobacco and asbestos defense in its portfolio, and many alumni in the Bush administration, but most Kirkland attorneys are doing other things, and a disproportionate number of them at the Chicago-based firm are going to be former classmates of or students of Harvard Law graduate and Chicago Law lecturer Obama, and have the six- and seven-digit incomes to give maximum contributions–and it only takes a few dozen $4600 contributions to make a firm look like a big contributor.  (And, on the other hand, as if to demonstrate the bipartisan nature of most law firms, John McCain turned to a Republican attorney, former Reagan White House Counsel A.B. Culvahouse, at the largely Democratic O’Melveny & Myers to lead his vice presidential search.) During the primaries, the trial lawyers were giving most of their money to Edwards, Clinton, and Biden, but those fundraisers are now doing business with Obama, as the recent press coverage of Fred Baron shows.

But the article is correct that the outlook for federal tort reform is grim, and that reformers are looking at rearguard actions defending against numerous attempts to make the system worse.

{ 1 comment }

1 Bill Childs 08.11.08 at 4:55 pm

I’m not actually surprised by the ratio (as a former big firm defense lawyer who has given to Obama; many of my former colleagues have too) — just noting that it’s a focus of the piece. I did misspeak when I said the money was coming from defense firms; you’re right, of course, that it’s from individual lawyers.

The candidates’ views on tort issues are pretty far down my list of priorities, and I would speculate that’s true of most donors.

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