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Not All Liberals Love Lawsuits

August 14, 2000

By Walter Olson

Lieberman's record puts him reliably on the left--except on tort reform. No wonder Nader can't stand him.

If the topic of lawsuit reform heats up this fall, Al Gore is going to risk looking mighty silly if he falls back on his old demagogic playbook and starts ranting against the whole idea as a plot of top-hatted capitalists against the people. That's because the most prominent Democratic supporter of such reform on the national scene has been none other than Sen. Joe Lieberman.

Originally an activist attorney general, Mr. Lieberman came to realize the high social cost of legal combat in area after area: product liability, medical malpractice, shareholder suits, municipal and nonprofit legal exposure. He's spoken of legislators' "cardinal duty" to "draft our laws to encourage people to minimize their disputes, and to encourage those who do have disputes to resolve them as efficiently, as economically, and as quickly as possible."

He's joined with Republican senators like Spence Abraham of Michigan, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and John Ashcroft of Missouri to sponsor legislation providing for small business liability relief, "auto choice" to let drivers opt out of the pain-and-suffering lottery, and asbestos-suit reform. Along with only three other Senate Democrats, he voted to curb the gargantuan fees of private lawyers hired by states to sue the tobacco industry--lawyers whose billions have emerged as a financial mainstay of the Democratic party.

Such is trial lawyers' power that not one of these ideas made it into law, but they sure earned Mr. Lieberman a lot of the right enemies--most splenetic among them fellow Connecticut native Ralph Nader, whose own presidential candidacy is giving him a platform with which to carry forward a long grudge match on the issue. On Friday Mr. Nader denounced Mr. Lieberman and George W. Bush alike as "tort deformers." For good measure, Mr. Nader flayed Bill Clinton himself for having signed a number of bills that curtailed liability in relatively modest ways. (Disclosure: I've served as an unpaid adviser on these issues to Mr. Bush's campaign.)

In his years as a lawmaker on the Senate Commerce Committee, Al Gore generally followed the lead of the committee's firebrand guardian of trial lawyers' interests, Sen. Ernest Hollings (D., S.C.). This year, however, much to Mr. Nader's ire, the vice president's campaign has thus far apparently judged it an unpromising voter strategy to take the offensive on the issue.

In February Mr. Gore's people held silent when Mr. Bush unveiled a comprehensive package of liability proposals. Last month, when Bill Clinton raised eyebrows by becoming the first president to address the annual convention of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, the New York Times quoted Mr. Nader as charging that, in the Times' words, "Mr. Gore was allowing the president to take the heat of associating with the lawyers while he was reaping the benefits." Mr. Nader told the Times: "He's just slinking around taking money like crazy from these guys, and at the same time he's not really standing up for the civil justice system."

Such attacks are risky for Mr. Nader, since they're bound to draw attention to his own role over the years, which "has been closely allied with trial lawyers on the issue of civil litigation rules," as the Times delicately puts it. Prominent trial lawyers are occasionally more blunt. "We are what supports Nader. We all belong to his group. We contribute to him, and he fundraises through us," one told Forbes years ago. "We support him overtly, covertly, in every way possible," said another.

What must especially gall Mr. Nader is the way Mr. Lieberman had combined his searching critique of the litigation culture with a strongly liberal voting record in general. Mr. Lieberman has supported stringent regulation, expansive taxes and spending, expansion of labor unions' powers, and so on. A case in point. Sen. Lieberman has been a reliable supporter of gun control--except for a 1992 vote against gun lawsuits in the District of Columbia. Tobacco votes tell a similar story.

In other countries, where organized lawyerdom is a far weaker force, Mr. Lieberman's combination of views would not be seen as remarkable. For the most part, European progressives accept their countries' longstanding consensus that needless lawsuits are not something society wants to encourage. Social democracies like Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands achieve some of the lowest litigation rates in the world.

Imagine how upset Mr. Nader would be if such views started catching on with the American left as well.

Original Source:



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