- The Washington Times - Friday, February 25, 2000

If Ralph Nader came to the defense of General Motors, most of us would sit up and take notice. So when former Clinton administration Secretary of Labor Robert Reich warns of the growing anti-democratic influence of the legal system, maybe we should pay attention, too.
Mr. Reich is no anti-government, anti-lawyer radical. Indeed, the former government apparatchik openly favors stricter government control and regulation of such things as tobacco and firearms. But to his credit, Mr. Reich is also a man who believes that passing legislation is the proper function of the legislature not the courts and who abjures the growing abuses of the legal system.
Over the last several weeks, in remarkable articles published in the Wall Street Journal and USA Today, Mr. Reich wrote that the Clinton administration, "fed up with trying to move legislation," is "launching lawsuits designed to succeed where legislation failed." He described how the administration is using the 1970 Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) chapter of the Organized Crime Control Act a law originally intended to fight the Mafia as a legal cudgel to beat into submission legitimate companies selling lawful products it happens not to like.
What the administration could not accomplish through Congress, he explained, it is seeking to achieve through the courts or more exactly, via the threat of protracted and hugely expensive litigation.
It's not just the Clinton administration, however, that's exploiting the legal system for its own purposes. Lawyers are running amok in the private sector as well only their motives are pecuniary and not political.
Spurious class-action lawsuits such as the one that bankrupted Dow Corning over dubious claims made about the safety of silicone breast implants are causing an unprecedented transfer of wealth from the pockets of shareholders and employees to plaintiffs' attorneys.
Public attacks that appeal to emotion (i.e, send a message to "the big corporations" that "they can't get away with it," etc.) teamed with the implicit threat of financially ruinous, protracted litigation, are being used by unscrupulous attorneys in private practice just as effectively and just as tyrannically as they are being used by the Clinton administration in its fight against "big tobacco" and the "gun industry."
One need not be a friend of "big corporations" (or a supporter of the tobacco industry and Second Amendment rights, for that matter) to be troubled by the growing influence of an anti-democratic, bullying legal system that serves the interests of a small minority of powerful politicians and well-heeled lawyers.
That is Mr. Reich's message when he warns of the danger this "end run around the democratic process" represents. He points out that if not checked, "you might as well say good-bye to liquor and beer, fatty foods and sharp cooking utensils." Indeed, any product that might result in death or injury and that includes just about anything you can think of could arguably be tarred as "defective," Mr. Reich notes. If that principle becomes enshrined in case law, it would be calamitous for the U.S. economy but a bonanza for the attorneys who will paw over the ruins.
If lawyers can reap huge paydays out of all proportion to proven damages and actual harm and if we permit agenda-driven politicians to usurp the legislative function then everyone from the child on the street corner with a lemonade stand on up will soon need a squad of high-priced legal "help" just to stay in business.
This isn't the American way.
But are we willing to do anything about it? Our answer will determine whether Mr. Reich's warnings were in vain.

Eric Peters is an editorial writer for The Washington Times and a nationally syndicated automotive columnist.

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