- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 21, 2003

A group of Senate Democrats plans to filibuster the bipartisan class-action reform bill aimed at reining in frivolous lawsuits that often benefit lawyers more than victims.

“I oppose the Class Action Fairness Act for the simple reason that it is not fair,” said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, who leads the group. “Actually, the legislation makes it more difficult for citizens to protect themselves against violations of state civil rights, consumer, health and environmental protection laws.”

Republicans said the bill is part of President Bush’s economic recovery plan as they worked yesterday to secure the 60 votes needed to quash a Democrat-led filibuster.

“Our system of class-action litigation is not just broken, it is falling apart,” said Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican and co-sponsor of the legislation. “That is not right, that is not justice and that cries out for reform.”

The American Tort Reform Association estimates the nation’s civil justice system cost $205 billion in 2001. That’s more than 2 percent of the gross domestic product and amounts to a 5 percent tax on wages.

Class actions are lawsuits in which a group of plaintiffs with similar complaints against the same defendant join behind one lead attorney in a single lawsuit. While the plaintiffs’ portion of the settlement is often diluted by the size of the class, the lawyers’ fees are not.

Republicans this week have told dozens of tales on and off the Senate floor about lawsuits in which class-action victims got a mere pittance and attorneys made a bundle.

Mr. Cornyn told of returning from a video store with his wife to discover from his receipt that he had unwittingly been a plaintiff in class-action suit against the store. He was awarded a $1 coupon off his next movie rental while the lawyers handling the case made about $9 million.

The Class Action Fairness Act would usher more lawsuits into federal courts to prevent lawyers from “shopping” their lawsuits around to various courts in search of favorable judges and juries. Also, federal courts are generally viewed as more conservative when it comes to lawsuit payouts.

“It would force [class-action suits] out of convenient state courts, which have experience with the legal facts and issues involved in such cases,” Mr. Leahy said. “It would push them into federal courts with new barriers to lawsuits with new burdens on plaintiffs.”

For years, Republicans have lobbied for tort reform but met stiff resistance from Democrats.

Since 1990, the legal industry has donated more than $500 million to lawmakers, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. More than 70 percent of that has gone Democrats.

Sen. Thomas R. Carper, Delaware, urged fellow Democrats to support the legislation during his party’s policy lunch yesterday. He said blocking the bill was not only bad policy, but also would give Republicans a hefty stick with which to beat Democrats in the next election.

“We play right into their hands, in my view, if we don’t proceed with the bill,” he said. “We wound ourselves as Democrats by not being willing to even take up the bill.”

The procedural vote to end debate on the matter for a vote — which requires 60 supporters — is scheduled for today.

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