Op-ed by CJ&D Executive Direcetor, Joanne Doroshow
For many years, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has been a particularly influential organization that has promoted the agenda of corporate America and the political right in state legislatures nationwide, but about which the public has known little. ALEC’s members, who work together to draft model bills, consist of state legislators, who pay little to join, and corporations and trade associations, who pay hefty membership fees. These fees purchase influence over ALEC’s agenda and access to lawmakers. Because ALEC’s issue-areas are quite broad – voter IDs, consumer protection, healthcare, education, the environment and guns, to name a few – not every ALEC bill connects to a particular company’s financial interests. Until now, associating with ALEC’s range of issues seems not to have been much of a problem for most companies, well worth the payoff of having their favored bills promoted. That’s why the stream of recent defections of some of ALEC’s highest-profile corporate members – McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Mars, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Intuit and Kraft – has been so extraordinary.
The principal trigger, of course, has been the taint surrounding ALEC’S “Stand Your Ground” laws, the statute at the heart of the controversy over George Zimmerman’s killing of Trayvon Martin. The business downside of associating with an organization pushing a law that seemingly turns a criminal perpetrator into a lawful executioner has apparently become too much for these companies, thanks to pressure from the civil rights and consumer community. That’s a good thing. But as we focus on Stand Your Ground laws, we shouldn’t lose sight of the breadth of ALEC’s damage around the country. In fact, some of the wider harm can be found in other parts of this very statute. This law does not just protect perpetrators. It is also a direct assault on crime victims themselves. Specifically, buried in ALEC’s Stand Your Ground laws – on the books in some form in about half the states in the U.S. – is a chilling measure that confers absolute civil immunity on perpetrators who successfully avoid arrest and prosecution under this law, stripping crime victims of their legal rights and access to the courts. This is important, because often in cases where the criminal justice system fails, families turn to the civil courts for help by bringing a civil suit against the perpetrators directly. This law blatantly tears away their constitutional rights.
In fact, preventing access to the civil courts for everyday Americans is a pervasive theme that runs through ALEC’s entire, corporate-backed agenda. ALEC has an entire division devoted just to preventing injured people from holding wrongdoers accountable in court. Its very active Civil Justice Task Force is co-chaired by Victor Schwartz, general counsel of the American Tort Reform Association, a corporate group seeking to limit the liability of its corporate members. The legislation generated by this task force has been nothing short of a gift to our nation’s most negligent companies, many of which have been successfully sued over and over for recklessly causing death and injury to their customers. In my conversation with the Florida Justice Association this week, I learned that Florida itself has over 18 such ALEC “tort reform” laws already on its books, with many more under consideration.
The problem with these laws is not only that they allow wrongdoers to escape accountability for what they do. They also discriminate on the basis of race, gender, age and income, issues not unlike those raised by the Travyon Martin case itself. For example, some ALEC bills target certain kinds of jury awards, specifically those that compensate for “non-economic” injuries like permanent disability, loss of a woman’s reproductive system, disfigurement, trauma, loss of a limb or blindness. When a bill passed Congress in 1996 that would make it more difficult to bring negligent product manufacturers to court (similar to various ALEC bills), President Bill Clinton vetoed the bill, stating that the legislation’s focus on non-economic damages was “especially unfair to senior citizens, women, children, who have few economic damages, and poor people.” In 2004, Representative John Conyers of Michigan, ranking Democrat on the U.S. House Judiciary Committee, issued a press statement titled, “Tort Reform Movement Has a Massively Disproportionate Impact on Minorities,” in which he stressed the harm that “restrictions on non-economic damages” were causing minorities.
Women are also disproportionately harmed by ALEC “tort” legislation. Some ALEC bills would go even further than federal bills and completely immunize the pharmaceutical industry for manufacturing unsafe drugs and medical devices, which they’ve brought to market under lax government rules. Michigan already has such a law, and ALEC-affiliated lawmakers have proposed this legislation in other states, like North Carolina. University of Buffalo law professor Lucinda Finley, who has written extensively about jury verdicts, found that: “Reproductive or sexual harm caused by drugs and medical devices has a highly disproportionate impact on women, because far more drugs and devices have been devised to control women’s fertility or bodily functions associated with sex and childbearing than have been devised for men.” History shows that many such drugs and devices were made safer only after women and their families filed lawsuits against those responsible. Immunizing the pharmaceutical industry means that women will no longer have any recourse. The same can certainly be said for the increasingly medicine-dependent senior citizen population.
These under-the-radar liability issues may not be garnering the same kind of public attention as some other ALEC priorities. But the concerns they raise are just as poignant. And they put at risk not only the rights of Trayvon Martin’s family but also those of every person living in this country.