- Associated Press - Thursday, March 6, 2014

SALEM, Ore. (AP) - The Oregon Senate on Thursday voted down a bill that would have used unclaimed money from class-action judgments to boost funding for lawyers who serve the poor.

After a tense and partisan debate, moderate Democrat Betsy Johnson joined all 14 Republicans to block the measure.

GOP lawmakers accused Democrats of trying to push an imperfect bill to help them in the upcoming election, and they’re expected to retaliate later Thursday by using procedural maneuvers to force votes on other contentious measures. Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, said class-actions bill “is just a political document.”

In Oregon, defendants who lose or settle a class-action lawsuit keep any unclaimed portion of the judgment, which often happens when members of the class can’t be found or they choose not to respond because their individual earnings would be too small to justify the effort.

Democrats wanted unclaimed money to go instead to an endowment that would help pay for legal-aid lawyers who help poor people with non-criminal cases.

Proponents say it’s unfair for companies that break the law to keep the money they have been ordered to pay. Sen. Diane Rosenbaum of Portland, the majority leader, said it’s like allowing a thief to keep some of his loot because the owner couldn’t be found to claim it.

“It isn’t fair and it isn’t just that wrong-doers like tobacco companies or large oil companies or other companies that have harmed Oregonians get to keep all the unclaimed parts of a damages award,” Rosenbaum said.

Critics objected that the bill applies to cases already filed, and they worried that it would change the method of determining who is a member of the class eligible for compensation.

“This bill does not just send the leftover pie to legal aid, it changes how courts decide the size of the pie in the first place,” Johnson said.

The issue has divided the legal community, with some of the state’s most prominent lawyers coming down on both sides of the issue.

Legal aid officials say about 850,000 Oregonians have income low enough to qualify for their services, but funding has diminished.

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