- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Legions of conservatives have clogged up phones on Capitol Hill demanding the inventor of Borking and the savior of Roe v. Wade not become the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. But almost as striking as what Sen. Arlen Specter will do to the courts is what he will do to the president’s tort reform agenda.

With Sen. John Edwards on his way out, Arlen Specter is the favorite senator of the trial lawyers. Tort reform is near the top of the president’s priority list, but one staff attorney on the Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over tort law, told this writer, “tort reform is dead if Specter is chairman.”

A brief look at Mr. Specter’s record makes that clear. In May of 1995, weeks into the new Republican majority, Mr. Specter tried to derail a product-liability reform bill. He voted against limits on attorney fees for medical liability suits and against limiting punitive damages to three times economic damages (not a hard cap, since economic damages would not be capped).

Mr. Specter also voted against an amendment to limit non-economic damages to $500,000 and against another to protect OB/GYNs from being sued for problems they didn’t cause. Mr. Specter also voted against the final bill.

In the Judiciary Committee, Mr. Specter works in more subtle ways to block tort reform. In 2003, Mr. Specter sneaked into a class-action reform bill a measure that would have emasculated it. National Journal wrote this about the amendment: “Inserted in committee at the behest of Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., and cosponsored by [Sen. Dianne] Feinstein, the provision would exempt from the bill both certain ‘case consolidations,’ which legal experts have described as being essentially class actions by a different name.” Most recently, Mr. Specter was key to passing a measure in the Senate to block Mr. Bush’s reform on overtime regulations. The archaic overtime rules had become a cash cow for trial lawyers and a serious drag on small businesses.

Mr. Specter’s efforts are not lost on the plaintiffs’ attorneys. A Legal Intelligencer article during Mr. Specter’s general election battle this fall against Democratic Rep. Joe Hoeffel was headlined, “Arlen Specter or His Opponent? Trial Lawyers Like Both.” One lawyer said, “A lot of lawyers in Philadelphia are good Democrats and good friends of Sen. Specter.” Another: “The truth is, both these guys are good for us…Traditionally, it’s been the Democrats doing this except for when you’ve got a guy like Arlen Specter.” The lawyers, as is their way, put their money where their mouth is. For the 2004 elections, trial lawyers gave Mr. Specter more than $1.8 million, making them responsible for one in ten of his campaign dollars.

Among Senate and House candidates, Mr. Specter has received the most trial lawyer cash in the past two years of any Republican. Besides John Kerry and Joe Lieberman, no returning senator has gotten more dough from the trial bar.

While it is clear Mr. Specter is serving his patrons well, it’s hard to argue he’s serving his constituents well. As Mr. Bush pointed out on his trips to Pennsylvania, it’s difficult to find a doctor in the Keystone State, thanks to junk lawsuits and relentless trial lawyers.

One of the most successful Pennsylvania firms at suing doctors is Kline & Specter. The senator’s son, Shanin Specter, is a partner there. In addition to helping his dad, Shanin sent $2,000 to the campaign coffers of Mr. Edwards.

As Mr. Bush tries to revive the economy in his second term, it’s not clear he can do that with Mr. Specter atop the committee that deals with tort reform. As Mr. Bush said during this campaign, “I don’t think you can be pro-small business and pro-trial lawyer at the same time.” There’s little doubt whose side Mr. Specter is on. There’s little hope for business if he’s chairman.

Timothy P. Carney is a Washington journalist.

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