Op/Ed: 2006 Election Analysis: Americans Do Not Support Restricting Their Own Rights

Monday, November 20, 2006

If you listen to corporate lobbyists, they will say that restricting lawsuits – so-called “tort reform” - is one of the top concerns of today’s voting public. Based largely on their own “push polls” and fictionalized arguments, corporate special interest groups have created a certain mythology around this issue, asserting it as some kind of national priority. Yet time and again, evidence shows that the public couldn’t be less interested.
Take the mid-term election results, for example. In Pennsylvania , Senator Rick Santorum, who made “tort reform” a part of his campaign, was pummeled by opponent Bob Casey, who opposes these efforts. Granted, there were many factors causing Santorum to lose. But the fact remains that U.S. Chamber of Commerce, one of the most powerful and wealthy proponents of corporate immunity and limiting legal rights, spent over half a million dollars on an ad praising Santorum for his pro-“tort reform” stance.
Similarly, several congressional candidates who used civil justice issues and attacks on trial lawyers in their races also lost, including Mike Whalen in Iowa, beaten by Bruce Braley; Joy Padgett in Ohio, defeated by Zack Space; and Clay Shaw in Florida, beaten by Ron Klein.
In West Virginia , Massey Energy chief Don Blankenship reportedly spent over $2 million of his own money supporting about 40 Republican candidates, most of whom lost in a sweeping defeat of his endorsements. Blankenship, who sits on the U.S. Chamber's national board, has ties to a group called “West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse” and has a reputation for attacking trial lawyers and the civil justice system at every opportunity.
Incredulously, a day after the election, in a last ditch effort to convince opinion leaders that “tort reform” matters to voters, the U.S Chamber of Commerce Institute for Legal Reform released a survey arguing that swing voters were demanding restrictions on their rights to bring lawsuits. This, of course, was completely contrary to any actual election results. As TortsProfs Blog pointed out, “ I didn't see a single exit poll that included litigation reform as a common (or even uncommon) response to open-ended questions: ‘Asked which issues were extremely important to their vote, 42 percent said corruption and ethics; 40 percent, terrorism; 39 percent, the economy; 37 percent, Iraq; 36 percent, values; and 29 percent, illegal immigration.’” (CNN; see also  Gallup 's Top Ten, which does include healthcare and "fixing government itself," but neither of those items indicates “litigation reform”)”
The election was a referendum on a lot of things, and the voters made many statements with their ballots about what is, and what is not, important to them. One issue that clearly was not, was tort deform. The notion that the public cares about restricting their own rights to go to court is one of most sensationalized fictions around today.

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