Burton: Lawmakers should settle civil justice reform
By By William F. West / community editor
Sept. 2, 2002
State Sen. Terry Burton wants state lawmakers to settle the issue of civil justice reform during a special session that starts Thursday.
Gov. Ronnie Musgrove has called a special session on private prison funding. He said lawmakers can consider medical malpractice insurance and civil justice reform after they approve prison funding.
Burton, D-Newton, served this summer on a joint House and Senate committee that studied civil justice reform. He discussed the special session last week with The Meridian Star editorial board.
The Meridian Star: Give us your impression of what's on the agenda, what direction you see us going in the special session and the way this has been handled in recent past weeks.
Burton: It's been my impression that this governor has said that he would call a special session. Included in that special session would be the private prison issue, which the House failed to pass in the past special session. When that issue is dealt with, then we would be given the opportunity to deal with medical malpractice reforms.
What bothers me about this whole deal is the governor seems to be giving a lot more credibility to the House recommendations than the Senate recommendations. The House recommendations are strictly medical malpractice.
The Senate heard the same testimony as the House. We heard from business. We heard from industry. We heard from individuals. We heard from trial lawyers, from the insurance industry and from the medical arena.
When all was said and done and taking everything into consideration the great majority of the members of that Senate committee felt like that we should address not only medical malpractice but other general reforms of the civil justice system.
The governor has chosen to ignore that and that really is a shame because the 13 members of the Senate worked just as hard as the 13 members of the House. And to ignore the Senate recommendations is a slam at us for the hard work that we put in. And it was hard work.
The Star: Why are you saying he's ignoring the Senate's recommendations?
Burton: Because our recommendations take into consideration medical malpractice and other reforms in the civil justice system, including business, insurance, changes in venue all kinds of things.
The House has some of those recommendations, but they only apply to medical malpractice. They don't apply to the business side of it. The House chose to ignore the need for reforms in business and industry.
The governor is saying basically, "I agree with the House. We're only going to deal with medical malpractice." And I think that's wrong.
I think that eight members out of 13 signed a report proposing changes to the system not only for medical malpractice, but for the civil justice system in general.
And eight out of 13 is a super-majority. And he ought to give us some credibility and give the Senate members of that committee some credibility in this call.
The Star: Didn't Musgrove say that if lawmakers passed the prison bill and the medical malpractice bill that he would put general civil justice reform on the table? If he's saying that, how could you say that he's ignoring the Senate.
Burton: That was my understanding last week. But in the (governor's) news conference (to outline the special session), it was my understanding that there was absolutely no mention of business and industry and general tort reforms.
The Star: Does it seem like he's making an about-face on this?
Burton: I don't know. It bothers me that it wasn't mentioned at all. And I am absolutely convinced the governor wants no reforms of any shape, form or fashion other than what he feels he has to do to be politically expedient.
I don't think he wants any reforms at all, but he would be willing to give up a few for the doctors. That's just wrong. We need to deal with this issue in general because it's not going to go away.
What is a medical malpractice crisis right now and I am convinced we are in a crisis is a looming crisis for business, industry and individuals who are trying to get insurance in this state. And to ignore that is absolutely wrong. And it's malfeasance to the utmost degree for an elected official to ignore that.
The Star: What about the method that he's using, saying lawmakers can consider medical malpractice insurance after funding private prisons?
Burton: It's extortion, in my opinion, to say, "I'll do this, if you'll do that to my satisfaction." It's absolute extortion. We need to have on the call the issues that are pertinent.
I keep hearing about this Department of Human Services crisis and a $19 million shortfall. He hasn't mentioned that yet and there are a lot of issues out there that we could address while we're in town. It's not just about the prison and the medical malpractice and tort reforms in general.
There's some other issues out there that need to be looked at while we're in town. Why keep having a special session to deal with one issue here and one issue there? Let's get them all in one special session.
We've had way too many special sessions already. And we need to have one and get the work done and get out of there and let the members of the Legislature go back to their usual vocations and make a living.