Like a Doe in the headlights

The Madison County Record May 14, 2006, 3:46am

Amidst his meandering closing argument in a medical malpractice trial here late last week, Granite City plaintiff's attorney Morris Chapman announced that he was "worried"-- about us.

That's us as in The Record, our newspaper. For the jury, Chapman even pointed out our reporter Steve Gonzalez, who was sitting in the gallery and listening intently to an epic diatribe in which the octogenarian attacked corporations and charter schools, bragged about his work representing blacks in the South, and reminisced about the tribulations of former President Richard Nixon.

Despite gallant efforts to change the subject, both Nixon and Chapman eventually lost.

But if Chapman's courtroom rhetoric was a bit off-target in a dispute over a man's unfortunate heart attack, it was revealing nonetheless that the so-called "patriarch" of the local plaintiff's bar would stoop so far as to acknowledge the power of the press. He even gave it a name-- the "13th juror."

That's creative, and not so inaccurate.

As we've opined on these pages time-and-again, when two parties are fighting each other in our taxpayer-funded courts, the interests of "the rest of us" are too often overlooked or ignored. This is not unimportant, as rulings in cases like this one portend to have major ramifications for those of us outside the courtroom.

Consider that had Chapman been successful in convincing a jury that his target-- a Troy doctor-- was responsible for his client's heart attack, the courtroom result would have, in effect, set a new, incredibly-high standard for all medical professionals. It would have changed all of their behavior, leading to the practice of more "defensive medicine" as well as higher premiums from insurers forced to account for new lawsuit risks.

The net of these higher costs is, always, more expensive health care for all of us. And that no doubt is fine and dandy with guys who reap the big fees like Morris Chapman. But then again, it isn't supposed to be his call.

Higher standards are ok, but they're the realm of the people, who act via our elected legislature. Judges-- who we elect, too-- are supposed to guard against lawmaking in the courtroom.

That, around here, they too often try to actively facilitate it, even actively protecting prominent plaintiff's attorneys from being held accountable under the law, explains why the press has been forced to take such a watchful eye.

No, Morris, we don't represent all of those many things you deem evil and unjust in the world. But we do stand for free speech, which is why you shouldn't have to worry, but you'd be smart to stay aware.

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