- The Washington Times - Monday, November 15, 2004

San Francisco lawyer Mary E. Alexander is past president of the American Trial Lawyers Association (ATLA), and is the organization’s political action chairwoman.

The following are excerpts of Ms. Alexander’s speech Saturday to the Consumer Attorneys of California’s annual convention in San Francisco, where she accepted that organization’s Edward I. Pollock Award:

As a lawyer, as national political action chair of ATLA, and as its past president, I’ve seen firsthand and from all the work of our col

leagues that the legal system is the last resort for those who need to be heard — and that when juries speak, corporate America listens. I doubt anyone believes that corporations would change their conduct without being compelled to by lawsuits and judgments by the courts.

I would like to say something about this national election. Personally, I have never been prouder to be a trial lawyer. Leading up to this election we sustained unprecedented attacks both while I was president of ATLA and this past year. The intensity of the assault on trial lawyers and consumers’ rights was extraordinary.

In speech after speech, political leaders spoke of “frivolous” lawsuits and the need for caps on damages. You and I know that these arguments distort the issue. Moreover, the number of frivolous cases is minuscule, and the system’s existing checks and balances properly reverse them. Still, Congress spent twice as many days on tort reform than on the war. Yet not a single piece of tort reform was passed.

I am proud that both John Edwards and John Kerry are lawyers and that they gladly pointed to their advocacy for innocent and otherwise powerless victims as proof of their concern for every American.

As a fellow trial lawyer, Senator Edwards is one of our biggest allies in Congress, and he continued to defend us throughout the campaign. His candidacy stood for consumers in America and for what’s right about America. He showed what the work of a trial lawyer truly is. Fears that his background in consumer advocacy would hurt the Democratic ticket never materialized.

Attack ads on trial lawyers and John Edwards did not work. Actually, when asked if the fact that John Edwards was a trial lawyer helped or hurt the Democratic ticket, 67 percent said it helped. His favorable ratings were some of the highest of the presidential candidates and remain high today. Despite Bush and the Republicans’ best efforts, criticism of trial lawyers simply did not resonate with the public.

In fact — and many people don’t know this — President Bush wanted to be a lawyer, but was rejected by the University of Texas Law School in 1970. Perhaps some of the ranting is really just the frustration of rejection. Or maybe, as the book “Bush’s Brain” contends, President Bush had no particular desire to push tort reform, but rather, Karl Rove forced him into it.

It is time to end the vitriol against trial lawyers and to let people and especially the media know what we really do.

This is not a partisan issue. We are proud of what we do, fighting for consumers against large insurance companies who don’t treat them fairly; fighting for the ordinary person; fighting for the voiceless and the powerless.

Trial lawyers did everything we could in this election. But we have just begun to fight. It’s time to make our message clear.

My colleagues, speaking in defense of lawyers and lawsuits, I ask you, has it been frivolous to hold tobacco accountable for its years of lies and cover-ups? To challenge faulty tires that killed people? To gain justice for victims of pedophiles in the clergy? To help workers who lose corporate pensions like Enron’s? To aid the victims of years of secret toxic and nuclear waste dumping? To help a woman who loses both her breasts because of a mismatched patient’s diagnosis?

Even in the famous McDonald’s coffee case, abused over and over by politicians — was it really frivolous to point out that the corporation had ignored over 700 identical cases, that their coffee was 40 degrees hotter than normal drinking temperature, and that the coffee unnecessarily provoked third-degree burns when spilled?

According to the Consumer Federation of America, an estimated 6,000 deaths and millions of injuries are prevented each year because of the deterrent effect of product liability lawsuits — your cases every day. Without what you do, Americans would still be driving on defective tires, asbestos would still line the walls of schools and homes, and badly designed cribs would strangle babies.

During my presidency of ATLA, the Congress debated bills that would have put a cap on damages and curtailed class-action lawsuits. I and other ATLA leaders had to literally stand at the door of the floor of the U.S. House and Senate to point out to members that a one-size-fits-all federal mandate that limits medical malpractice cases won’t make patients safer, guarantee they’ll have a doctor when they need one, or bring down insurance rates for patients or doctors. What these bills will really do is reward the insurance industry and corporations with higher profits and less accountability and prohibit juries of regular Americans from holding harmful interests accountable.

We won these efforts — for the time being, and once by a single vote. With the new makeup of the House and Senate, our job just got tougher — a lot tougher. We will need even more of us — of you — at the door, and on the phones, and writing letters.

It will be helpful to have our lawyer colleagues and advocates John Kerry and John Edwards in the Senate, but under public pressure even they have had to talk about the need for so-called “tort reform.” We all want the bad apples out of our profession, but I know you share with me the fear that somehow, despite our best work, Congress could go too far.

One of the proudest moments of my national work is what we did immediately following 9/11. ATLA’s Trial Lawyers Care (TLC), more than 1100 trial lawyers, including many of you, provided free help as volunteers to the September 11th victims and their families. We represented over half of the 2,900 victims’ families from the Twin Towers, the Pentagon and Pennsylvania. This was the largest pro-bono legal effort in U.S. history. We encouraged and assisted families to apply to the Federal September 11th Victim Compensation Fund — which we helped create and pass in Congress — rather than sue. …

An astonishing 98 percent of the victims’ families chose our no-suit strategy. Six billion dollars has been paid out from the fund to 2,963 death cases and 4,430 injury claims. I feel good about our success in helping to heal and provide justice to families in this national tragedy. …

We as lawyers, with character, courage, compassion and a keen moral compass, battle for our clients, fight for victims, and protect the nation from defective products through our justice system. This is what makes me proud to be a lawyer, and the public must demand no less of us.

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