Manhattan Institute probes lobbying efforts of lawyers

By John O'Brien | Feb 9, 2010


NEW YORK - The Manhattan Institute's latest edition in its "Trial Lawyers, Inc.," series explores the effect the plaintiffs bar has on lawmakers at the state level and in Washington, D.C.

The report, released Tuesday, chronicles the plaintiffs bar's rise in the 1940s and current spending practices, like $725 million donated to political candidates for state offices in the past 10 years.

"Thanks to large contributions, both to the Democratic Party and to individual legislators, lawyers have not only blocked most fed­eral efforts at tort reform but are also working to coax goodies from Congress that pad their bottom line," the report says.

Among those efforts are a tax break for contingent-fee lawyers worth more than $1 billion, allowing state juries to override federal regulations and discouraging arbitration in disputes that are too expensive to take to trial.

The report says more money has been contributed to political campaigns by lawyers than any other industry over the past two decades.

Among those currently in the U.S. Senate who have had their campaigns financed by lawyers are Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill.

Since 1990, the political action committee for the American Association for Justice (formerly the Association of Trial Lawyers of America) has given more than $33 million to federal candidates.

"Trial Law­yers, Inc.'s ability to keep tort reform off the table in the recent discussions over health-care reform is not surprising in light of the fact that lawyers' congressional-campaign contributions in the last election cycle substantially exceeded the combined total of political donations from doctors, pharmaceutical companies, HMOs, hospitals, and nursing homes," the report says.

The report says donating efforts are important on the state level, too, because tort laws are crafted by state judges.

"With business groups now fighting back against Trial Lawyers, Inc.'s longtime grip on state judiciaries, the litigation lobby has turned its attention to state legislatures, where it is not only block­ing tort reforms but working to expand its portfolio of litigation opportunities," the report says.

"Among other things, state legislators are authoriz­ing new kinds of lawsuits, raising damage caps and giving private lawyers authority to sue on behalf of the state."

West Virginia Attorney General Darrell McGraw is singled out for that practice, though he is not the only state attorney general who hires private firms to represent state agencies.

However, the report criticized his hiring of firms that contribute to his campaigns.

"In 2001, McGraw hired four private firms that had given $47,500 to his reelection campaigns to sue Oxycontin manufacturer Purdue Pharma," the report says. "The $10 million settlement the firms secured netted them $3 million in fees."

Image is important to the plaintiffs bar, the report says, "as evidenced by its recent decision to change the name of its top industry association from the Association of Trial Lawyers of America (ATLA) to the American Association for Justice - a moniker less suggestive of a lobbying group for plaintiffs' lawyers than of the Justice League of America, the team of superheroes in the 1970s Saturday-morning Su­per Friends cartoons."

The Manhattan Institute calls itself "a think tank whose mission is to develop and disseminate new ideas that foster greater economic choice and individual responsibility."

The AAJ did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment.

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