Suddenly, Trial Lawyers Are On The Defensive

It's one of the nation's most powerful lobbies, with members toting briefcases full of cash and boasting of friends in the White House. Yet trial lawyers are on the defensive these days--and bellowing "Objection!" doesn't seem to help.

After years of grousing about rapacious plaintiffs' attorneys--and megajudgments from product-liability suits and shareholder class actions--business is beginning to blunt the tort bar's edge. Republicans are intensifying attempts to portray the Administration as in the lawyers' pockets. What's more, the popularity of GOP governors--led by Texas' George W. Bush--has made it easier to enact tort-reform initiatives at the state level.

To see how far the lawyer lobby has slipped, one only has to look at President Clinton's recent about-face on GOP-promoted legislation limiting software makers' Y2K exposure. Trial lawyers fought hard against liability caps. But a day before GOP front-runner Bush was to appear in Silicon Valley to bash Vice-President Al Gore's intransigence on the issue, White House objections were shelved.

"DEMONIZED." Clintonites have been trial lawyers' staunchest defenders, even risking Silicon Valley's ire to veto a '95 bill--quickly overridden--that discouraged frivolous shareholder suits. Thanks to the GOP-business onslaught, tort lawyers "have been demonized," says GOP consultant Sal Russo. "This creates a dilemma for Democrats: Side with the public or their contributors."

Bush, who must fire up conservative GOP primary voters, loves being the bar's bete noir. He boasts of his '95 signing of a law that tamed Texas' once high-riding plaintiffs' lawyers and made it far tougher for consumers to win in court. "I will take the side of innovation over litigation every single time," Bush boomed at a July 1 fund-raiser in Palo Alto, Calif., to cheers from tech entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. But consumer advocate Ralph Nader says Bush's lawyer-bashing is "code for: `You don't have to be responsible for pollution and stock manipulation because we're weakening the rights of defrauded people to sue."'

Bush isn't the only Republican scoring at the state level. Some 17 legislatures have moved to limit punitive damages since '95. In Florida last year, the new GOP majority in Tallahassee passed major tort reform. A conservative group ran TV ads lambasting the fat settlements awarded a handful of Democratic-connected lawyers hired by the state to sue the tobacco industry. Then-Governor Lawton Chiles, a Democrat, vetoed the measure. But it passed again this May and was signed by GOP Governor Jeb Bush. Neal A. Roth, president of the Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers, says the attack is more political than principled. "If [Republicans] dry up lawsuits and the fees lawyers collect, contributions to the Democratic Party will shrivel."

REDIRECT? Still, lawyers will remain a potent force. The Association of Trial Lawyers of America contributed $2.4 million to federal races during the 1997-98 cycle. But many now talk of directing far more cash to state legislative races.

Beyond that, trial lawyers contend that the business-GOP alliance risks a backlash if voters view the drive as an assault on consumers' right to sue over dangerous products. In 1996, Californians rejected business-backed ballot initiatives that would have capped jury awards after foes charged the measures were anticonsumer. "What may get applause in a CEO meeting may be a killer [with voters]," says Bob Mulholland, a political adviser to the California Democratic Party.

In theory, he's right. But California, one of the only big states with a Democratic governor, may be atypical. Elsewhere, trial lawyers are quaking in their wingtips.

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