Government Relations/Public Relations
THE BEST FRIENDS MONEY CAN BUY
Trial Lawyers, Inc. floods the political process with cash.
Trial Lawyers, Inc. has poured funds into the coffers of its political allies to gain unprecedented influence at the national and state levels. The Association of Trial Lawyers of America—the “home office” of Trial Lawyers Inc.—, routinely ranks among the top five PACs in federal campaign donations, leaning strongly to Democrats. In 2002, ATLA was the third most generous PAC, contributing $2.8 million; 89% of that money went to Democrats, making ATLA the largest PAC contributor to the Democratic party (see graph).
ATLA’s PAC contributions are merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Trial Lawyers, Inc.’s political influ-ence. Through individual and soft money contributions, as well as PAC donations, the lawsuit industry has surpassed all others in political giving in every electoral cycle since 1990 (see graph on next page). Several leaders of Trial Lawyers, Inc. are regulars on top-donor lists: in the 2002 electoral cycle, members of Williams & Bailey, one of the largest personal-injury firms in Texas, gave $2.4 million to federal campaigns; securities class action giant Milberg Weiss gave $1.4 million; Baron & Budd, headed by former ATLA president and asbestos class action lawyer Fred Baron, accounted for $1.1 mil-lion; and prominent asbestos and tobacco litigator Peter Angelos’s firm gave $1.9 million. Each of these firms’ members gave at least 99% of their contributions to Democrats. All told, the litigation industry has contributed $470 million to federal campaigns since 1990.
The Lawsuit Industry’s “Favorite Son”
Epitomizing Trial Lawyers, Inc.’s drive for political influence is the career of U.S. Senator John Edwards (D-NC), a former personal-injury lawyer. Campaigning for the Senate in 1998, Edwards received more than half his total outside contributions from his friends in the lawsuit in-dustry. Edwards has in turn enthusiastically supported key provisions backed by Trial Lawyers, Inc., including helping to defeat proposed limi-tations on personal-injury lawsuits in the event of a terrorist attack and seeking to make it easier to sue health maintenance organizations.
Although Edwards’s 2004 presidential run seems thus far to be floundering, his campaign certainly opened eyes to the political power of Trial Lawyers, Inc.: by the end of the first quarter of 2003, Edwards topped all 2004 Democratic presidential hopefuls in fund-raising—with almost two-thirds of the $7.4 million he had raised coming from trial lawyers, their families, and their staffs. As noted by the Wall Street Journal, “even political professionals seem[ed] stunned by the degree to which his candidacy ha[d] become a wholly owned financial subsidiary of the national tort bar.”
Justice for Sale
At the same time, and with less fanfare, Trial Lawyers, Inc. has ratch-eted up its longstanding activity in financing state judicial races. Lawyers traditionally have been the largest group of givers to state supreme court judicial races, and these formerly sleepy races have become the new hot spots. Texas is historically notorious for high-spending judicial cam-paigns; as long ago as 1980, Texas became the first state to have a statewide judicial race cost $1 million. In Madison County, Illinois, a “magnet court” jurisdiction (see box on page 8), over 75% of all recent judicial race contribu-tions came from Trial Lawyers, Inc. Underwriting such campaigns has been a key tactic in preserving friendly judicial philosophies and rewarding judges congenial to expansive tort laws. This notion of “justice for sale” is a serious threat to judicial independence and the rule of law.
While Trial Lawyers, Inc. has used its huge political contributions to buy influence in Washington and in state capitals, its operators con-tinue to rely on alliances with so-called consumer groups to gain favorable media attention and win the public relations battle on many tort issues. By collaborating with advocacy organizations and even creating some of its own groups, Trial Lawyers, Inc. has successfully portrayed itself as a defender of the little guy—obscuring the huge revenues the industry reaps from expanding civil justice activity, ultimately at the expense of ordinary citizens.
The model for this symbiotic relationship is between Trial Lawyers, Inc. and consumer advocate Ralph Nader. This strategic alliance goes back decades, to at least the time that Nader published his article and book attacking the safety of the Corvair automobile, and Nader insti-tutionalized his allegiance by founding various nonprofit organizations such as the Center for Study of Responsive Law and Public Citizen. Over the years, these orga-nizations supported Trial Lawyers, Inc. on issues ranging from resisting changes in California’s auto-insurance system (changes that brought down insurance rates for ordinary citizens) to fighting against securities-litigation reform (which kept Trial Lawyers, Inc. from decimating the value of highly volatile stocks). A bevy of promi-nent members of Trial Lawyers, Inc. told Forbes magazine that they contributed heavily to Nader groups over the years and considered the consumer advocate’s support crucial in drumming up favorable publicity for their suits.
Not content merely to have such groups as their allies, Trial Lawyers, Inc. has directly funded its own advocacy organizations that present themselves as unbi-ased allies of Joe Q. Public. One startling example of this practice comes from New York, where the state’s Trial Lawyers Association created the Alliance for Consumer Rights to lobby as a consumer group for legislation advantageous to trial lawyers. Over the years, Trial Lawyers, Inc. has frequently cited research by the Alliance in editorials and op-ed pieces in support of its positions, con-veniently neglecting to mention that this group is sponsored by Trial Lawyers, Inc.’s local affiliate and actually operates out of the New York State Trial Lawyers Association headquarters.
Trial Lawyers, Inc. has also established its own foundations to support “consumer advocacy” at the national level. In 1986, members of the American Trial Lawyers Association and several activists founded the Civil Justice Foundation, whose mission is to strengthen connections between Trial Lawyers, Inc. and consumer groups. The foundation has awarded more than $1 million to dozens of consumer organiza-tions, which often have direct but unobvious links to Trial Lawyers, Inc. For example, one foundation grant recipient, Citizens for Safe and Reliable Highways, lists its goal as improved truck and vehicle safety, yet eight out of nine of the sponsors listed on the group’s website are trial law firms specializing in suing for damages on behalf of victims of motor-vehicle accidents.
Finally, Trial Lawyers, Inc. also has a presence in research and academic institutions. Since 1956, ATLA has been the quiet sponsor of the Roscoe Pound Institute, a think tank named after the former dean of Harvard Law School. It publishes research, offers scholarships, and sponsors conferences on trial law.
175. See Center for Responsive Politics, Top PACs for 2001-2002, http://www.opensecrets.org/pacs/index.asp.
176. See id.
177. See id.
178. See Center for Responsive Politics, Lawyers/Law Firms: Long-Term Contri-bution Trends, http://www.opensecrets.org/industries/indus.asp.
179. See Center for Responsive Politics, Lawyers/Law Firms: Top Contributors (2002), http://www.opensecrets.org/industries/contrib.asp.
180. See id.
181. See Long-Term Contribution Trends, supra note 178.
182. Editorial, Tort Terrorism, WALL ST. J., June 20, 2002, at A16.
183. See Jill Zuckman, Medical Bill Debate Pits Doctor vs. Lawyer, CHI. TRIB., June 24, 2001, at 8; Sam Dealey, Donations to Sen. Edwards Questioned, THE HILL (May 7, 2003), available at http://www.hillnews.com/news/050703/edwards.aspx.
184. See Thomas B. Edsall & Dan Balz, 3-Month Push Gave Edwards Democratic Fundraising Edge: Trial Lawyers Are Key Contributors to $7.4 Million Total, WASH. POST, Apr. 17, 2003, at A8.
185. Editorial, Favorite Son Candidacy, WALL ST. J., Apr. 21, 2003, at A12.
186. See Justice Robert Young, Michigan Supreme Court, Reflections of a Survivor of State Judicial Warfare, No. 2 CIV. JUST. RPT. 5 (Manhattan Inst. Center for Legal Pol’y, June 2001), available at http://www.manhattan-institute.org/html/cjr_2.htm (“[T]he very powerful and wealthy plaintiff personal injury bar, . . . simply known in Michigan as the ‘Trial Lawyers[,]’ . . . are investors in litigation because they earn as fees a third of whatever verdicts or settlements they can achieve. As such, the plaintiff’s bar has a continuing and direct pecuniary interest in who becomes or remains a Michigan judge.”).
187. See American Judicature Society, Judicial Selection in Texas: An Introduction, available at http://www.ajs.org/js/TX.htm.
188. See American Tort Reform Association, Justice for Sale: The Judges of Madison County (Oct. 3, 2002), available at http://www.atra.org/reports/IL_justice.
189. See Ralph Nader, The Safe Car You Can’t Buy, THE NATION, 1959; RALPH NADER, UNSAFE AT ANY SPEED: THE DESIGNED-IN DANGERS OF THE AMERICAN AUTO-MOBILE (Grossman, 1965).
190. See Peter Brimelow & Leslie Spencer, The Plaintiff Attorneys’ Great Honey Rush, FORBES, Oct. 16, 1989, at 197.
191. See, e.g., New York State Trial Lawyers Association, From the Editor: Bill of Particulars, June 1998 (“We and our clients are fortunate to have the Alliance for Consumer Rights [ACR] to maintain such vigilance and fight for consumers’ rights in the Legislature.”), available at http://www.nystla.org.
192. See http://www.nystla.org (NYSTLA); http://consumerlawpage.com/article/natlist.shtml (Alliance for Consumer Rights).
193. See http://www.atla.org/foundations/civiljus/cjmenu.aspx (Civil Justice Foundation).
194. See id.
195. See http://www.trucksafety.org.
196. See http://www.trucksafety.org/default.asp?contentID=313.
197. See http://www.roscoepound.org/new/members.htm.