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GOP stance on trial lawyers { May 2 2004 }

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Stance On Tort Awkward For GOP
Published: May 2, 2004

TAMPA - When President Bush talked about health care costs in a Tampa speech in February, he made his priorities clear.
After a few perfunctory sentences about health savings accounts and insurance purchasing groups, he jumped to the meat of his remarks, a diatribe against lawsuits.

``I tell you one thing we need to do in this country,'' Bush said. ``We need to get rid of the junk and frivolous lawsuits that are driving good doctors out of business.

``There are some powerful interests in Washington that don't want to see this happen,'' he said - ``special interests'' that have ``bottled up'' legislation on the issue.

Bush didn't identify them, but everyone in the Republican crowd knew he was talking about trial lawyers.

A small fraction of America's legal profession, ``trial lawyers'' have reached the top of the heap of enemies for the Republican Party and for the administrations of the president and Gov. Jeb Bush.

They're a group with money to contribute that tends to give it mostly, but not exclusively, to Democrats. They also tend toward the Democratic side on issues that pit consumers and working people against corporate interests.

For Republicans, condemning trial lawyers and ``frivolous'' lawsuits stokes an important financial base - the physicians, health care conglomerates, business owners and corporate leaders who often are the targets of lawyers.

The Bush brothers have taken the lead on the issue, arguing for what's called ``tort reform,'' which means limits and restrictions on lawsuits against professional and business interests.

The president, in particular, is widely reported to dislike lawyers and admire corporate chieftains.

This year, however, trial lawyers have become an awkward political issue for Florida Republicans.

Florida has an open U.S. Senate seat the party wants badly to win. In a large Republican primary, the candidate reported to be the White House's choice is Mel Martinez - a trial lawyer.

Martinez also is a former Orange County chairman and federal housing secretary, but his GOP rivals, particularly Bill McCollum, are harping on the lawyer angle.

McCollum, a former congressman from Longwood, cites donations Martinez made as president of the Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers to Democratic campaigns, as well as to a campaign against a tort reform constitutional amendment.

McCollum is a lawyer, too, working for a prominent law and lobbying firm called Baker & Hostetler LLP. He doesn't have the kind of practice that would make him what's called a ``trial lawyer.''

Definition And Direction

Carlton Carl, spokesman for the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, said trial lawyers are defined as, ``generally, lawyers who represent individuals injured by the negligence of others, either physically or financially.'' Nationwide, he said, there are about 100,000 to 150,000 among more than 1 million lawyers.

Florida probably has about 5,000 trial lawyers out of about 60,000 in the Florida Bar, Scott Carruthers of the Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers said.

Both men said their organizations have not surveyed members' political orientations, but there are substantial numbers of Republicans.

In the 2002 election cycle, Carruthers said, the Florida academy, and members contributing money through the academy, gave more money to Republicans than Democrats.

Still, trial lawyers are identified more with the Democratic sides of many issues.

``The genesis of the dislike is that, from the earliest days, they have largely been affiliated with the Democratic Party,'' said U.S. Rep. Mark Foley, a West Palm Beach Republican who quit the Senate race and supports Martinez.

In Florida, Foley conceded, ``that was of necessity because the Democrats were in charge'' until the late 1990s.

Business and physician groups helped Republicans win majorities in Florida and national government, he said, cementing the alliances.

``We support entrepreneurship in America and we support business, people taking responsibility for their own actions,'' said Joseph Agostini, spokesman for the state GOP. The ``lawsuit culture created by the trial attorneys'' doesn't square with that.

Medical malpractice is a popular hammer for Republicans to use, Foley said, because there is ``no question people are going to identify with a doctor rather than a lawyer.''

The Bushes, Foley said, ``realize they've hit a nerve.''

Morality And Money

``Every political party needs a boogeyman,'' said Alexander Clem, an Orlando trial lawyer who works for Morgan, Colling & Gilbert, a personal injury law firm that arouses Republican wrath by advertising for clients.

``The Republicans' bogeymen in the '80s were Ted Kennedy and unions,'' Clem said. ``But this [antipathy toward trial lawyers] has become the vogue over the last decade. They vilify us, and we're the cause of all society's ills.''

Clem is the son of a trial lawyer and the incoming president of the Florida academy. He's also a Republican whose father, Chester Clem, a former legislator and state party vice chairman, helped to build the Florida GOP.

Clem said he cares ``deeply about the Republican Party and its base principles,'' but he's bitter about its attacks on his profession. He voted for the Bush brothers but said he's ``very disappointed in the relentless attacks that come from that family.''

He and other trial lawyers point to the good they say their profession has done.

Righting the wrongs caused by defective products and negligence squares with the GOP philosophy of accountability, Clem said.

``I'd rather have a trial lawyer righting a wrong at the courthouse than 1,000 bureaucrats trying to do it in Tallahassee or Washington,'' he said.

Without large fees in the cases they win, he added, lawyers couldn't stake their own money to pay for investigation and case preparation.

Opponents respond by pointing to those fees, which along with expenses sometimes exceed the money that goes to the injured client; and to cases of apparent abuses, including Florida cases in which client- lawyer teams filed hundreds of Americans with Disabilities Act lawsuits, forcing small businesses to pay their legal fees.

Clem acknowledged there are abuses, but he said judges have the legal tools and ability ``to bring the hammer down on the lawyers and plaintiffs.''

Martinez Gave To Democrats

Martinez, who became wealthy as a trial lawyer before entering politics, was Florida academy president in the 1980s.

He contributed to Democrats including Bob Graham, the retiring senator he hopes to succeed; Bill Gunter, who ran for U.S. Senate in 1988 against Republican Connie Mack; and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Martinez also gave $20,000 to Alert 88, a trial lawyer-sponsored effort against tort reform.

In this campaign, Martinez has received backing from trial lawyers who also support Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry.

Invoking the trial lawyer issue, McCollum's campaign has said Martinez is ``at odds with both President Bush and Senate GOP leadership on the critical issue of medical liability reform'' and has ``supported liberal Democrats all over the country.''

Martinez spokeswoman Jennifer Coxe calls the attacks ``petty and disingenuous.''

``This is 20 years ago; it was part of his position'' with the academy, she said. Gunter was a friend he supported only in the primary before giving money to Mack in the general election against Democrat Buddy MacKay.

McCollum Lacks `Clean Hands'

``McCollum's representing big insurance companies, and Mel's representing consumers,'' Coxe said. ``Insurance companies are part of the health care cost problems, too, a huge part of it. ... There are consumers that are victims of legitimate malpractice and health care companies.''

Martinez supports lawsuit limits, including on class action, and ``loser pays'' provisions on legal fees.

McCollum, she noted, has made more recent contributions to his law firm's political action committee, which in turn gives to Democrats, and also received money from trial lawyer interests.

Foley said McCollum has cast votes that favored trial lawyers on tort reform. In 1995, he voted to raise caps on punitive damages in a pending bill from $250,000 to $1 million, to weaken ``loser pays'' and other lawsuit restriction provisions.

``He doesn't have clean hands'' to criticize Martinez, Foley said.

McCollum spokeswoman Shannon Gravitte said McCollum may have disagreed with technical points in the 1995 bill, but he long has supported tort reform and voted for the package, including the $250,000 caps.

Because the House routinely passes tort reform legislation, and the Senate routinely defeats it, Florida's new senator could play a decisive role in the issue, she said.

Reporter William March can be reached at (813) 259- 7761.

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