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Lawyers grip new tort study panel

By By Sid Salter / syndicated columnist
May 22, 2002
If you're Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck and House Speaker Tim Ford and you're trying to instill confidence in the state's business and medical professional community that the political fix really isn't in on the issue of tort reform in the Legislature, how would you do it?
Tough question particularly in light of the fact that in appointing the standing Judiciary committees in both houses you've already established an undeniable track record of giving lawyers the majority of votes on the committees and the chairmen and vice chairmen of both committees are lawyers.
Tuck appointed 21 senators to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Twelve committee members are lawyers giving them 57 percent control. Oh, yes, and another committee member is married to a highly-regarded trial lawyer but who's counting, right? Ford appointed 25 senators to the House Judiciary A Committee. Thirteen members are lawyers giving them 52 percent control, but control nonetheless.
Lawyers get more control
Business and medical professionals contend that the lawyer-dominated makeup of the legislative committees that are the gatekeepers to any substantive tort reform legislation essentially deals them out of a fair shake on tort reform. That belief is intensified when it is revealed that House Judiciary A Committee Chairman Percy Watson in 2001 accepted $21,500 in campaign contributions over two-thirds of his total 2001 reported contributions from trial lawyers and trial lawyer political action committees(PACs).
In the face of growing state and national criticism of the state's legal climate and the Legislature's consistent refusal to deal with the tort reform issue, what do Tuck and Ford do? They appoint a 26-member special legislative committee to "study" tort reform.
Sixteen members of that "study" committee are lawyers giving them at 61.5 percent even more control of the "study" committee than they already had of the standing Judiciary committees in both houses. Amazing! Thanks, Mr. Speaker. Nice job, Governor Tuck.
Given those stacked numbers, I'm sure the state's business and medical professional community is likely just reeling with renewed confidence in their chances for fairness on tort reform in the Legislature. Can you blame them?
Perception really is reality
There's no question that tort reform can't and shouldn't be accomplished without significant input from the trial lawyers who make the state's tort system work and from defense lawyers who complete that legal equation. There's nothing inherently evil about lawyers making law that's their job.
But when the laws under consideration are those which regulate the conduct of lawyers and has a direct impact on their livelihoods, the perception of fairness is important. For good or ill, many in the business and medical professional community in this state believes that Tuck and Ford have made calculated decisions to put the fox in charge of the henhouse on the issue of tort reform.
Unless the Legislature deals with the issue of tort reform in a meaningful way, the 2003 general election will be dominated by the tort reform issue. In every legislative district, a potential showdown exists between the trial lawyers and the business and medical professional community. It's won't be nice or pretty, either.
Most legislators have sense enough to know that isn't a political lollipop that they're going to enjoy licking.
Lawyer dominated or not, the tort reform study committee must choose between making some needed reforms or plunging the entire Legislature into a fight for their political lives in the 2003 elections. It's come down to that.
Tuck and Ford should know that, too.