The bill aimed at curbing class-action lawsuit abuse, which Democrats filibustered last year, was passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday with bipartisan support.
After the panel’s 13-5 vote, the Class Action Fairness Act now is headed for the Senate floor, where bill backers say they have the 60 votes needed to overcome any new filibuster by Democrats.
The bill would divert many of the largest class-action lawsuits out of state courts and into the federal court system.
Such a move, supporters say, would prevent lawyers from shopping their cases around in search of judges and juries who are friendly to plaintiffs and who have a reputation for providing huge damage awards.
“Right now, people across the country can be dragged into lawsuits unaware of their rights and unarmed on the legal battlefield,” said Sen. Herb Kohl of Wisconsin, one of the three Democrats on the committee to vote with Republicans in favor of the measure.
“What our bill does is give back to regular people their rights and representation. This measure may not stop all abuses, but it moves us forward,” he said.
The bill also would curtail the payment of tiny awards — in some cases, coupons of small value — to consumer plaintiffs while their attorneys walk away with massive payments.
“Consumers are too often getting the short end of the stick in class-action cases, recovering coupons or pocket change while their lawyers reap millions,” Mr. Kohl said.
Several Democrats remain opposed to the legislation.
“I oppose the so-called Class Action Fairness Act for the simple reason that it is not fair,” said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat and ranking member of the committee. “This is a high-handed override of the rights of the American people, intending to benefit wealthy and powerful special interests.”
Sen. Russell D. Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat, said: “There isn’t a crisis.”
The bill, he said, is “a solution in search of a problem.”
The debate in the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday revealed a flipping of allegiances among some members. Democrats questioned the fitness of federal courts that historically have championed so many of their causes, while Republicans brushed aside the rights of states to handle court cases as they see fit.
“This is a radical change in our federal system of justice,” Mr. Feingold said. “We have 50 states in this country, each with its own laws and courts. State courts are an integral part of our system of justice. They have worked well for our entire history.”
Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican and ardent supporter of lawsuit reforms, noted that the legal standards and jurisprudence are “much more mature in federal courts.”
Mr. Cornyn said supporters of the legislation have rounded up 62 votes to pass the bill on the Senate floor, enough to break a filibuster if Democrats choose to lodge one.
Passage in the Senate will all but ensure ultimate approval of the bill, which President Bush has urged Congress to pass. A similar bill was introduced in the House this week and is expected win easy passage with broad bipartisan support.