Politics & Policy

Kerry-Edwards & Co.

Trial Lawyers, Inc. run for president.

When John Kerry introduced John Edwards as his running mate, he declared, “I have chosen a man who understands and defends the values of America.”

The political analysts, or at least those on the left, have swooned. Most news stories have focused on how Edwards “balances the ticket“–on how, in contrast to the “dull” and “patrician” Kerry, Edwards introduces “pizzazz” to the campaign “with bags of Southern charm, youthful energy and an ease with voters on the stump.” Reporters have been playing up the contrast between “Cheney’s phlegmatic stump-speaking style” and Edwards’s “relentlessly peppy populism,” and Democratic strategists have been salivating over the possibility of “Edwards turn[ing] his trial lawyer’s cross-examination skills on Vice President Dick Cheney and the Iraq contracts of Halliburton, the firm Cheney once headed.”

Edwards’s selection, however, exposes the degree to which most Democrats are beholden to a corporate interest far bigger and more nefarious than the staid energy company Cheney left to return to public service: the litigation industry, which we at the Manhattan Institute have dubbed “Trial Lawyers, Inc.

According to publicly available data, Halliburton had revenues of a bit less than $19 billion over the last twelve months, on which it earned a paltry two-percent profit margin. Over the most recent twelve months on record, Trial Lawyers, Inc. in contrast earned over $40 billion, presumably with much higher margins. Indeed, Trial Lawyers, Inc.’s revenues are 50 percent more than those of high-profit companies such as Microsoft or Intel, and twice those of Coca-Cola.

Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with being a large, profitable corporate interest in America. But Trial Lawyers, Inc., unlike the aforementioned companies, does not earn its money by selling products to willing consumers: It instead abuses its unique access to the government’s monopoly on force to redistribute wealth, taking a large chunk for itself in the process.

Predictably, the trial bar has used its largesse to invest heavily in the political process essential to its business, and has therein gained influence over government surpassing any other industry’s. The litigation industry has led all others in political contributions for over a decade, and the American Trial Lawyers Association was the largest PAC contributor to the Democratic party in the last full political cycle. Over that same span, every law firm contributing over $1 million was a plaintiffs’ firm, and each gave 99 to 100 percent of its contributions to Democrats.

John Edwards, the populist with pizzazz, “presides” over this government-affairs arm of Trial Lawyers, Inc. The degree to which Edwards’s political career has been funded by the plaintiffs’ bar is truly astounding, and is far more newsworthy than the rantings of wacky conspiracy theorists who believe that we went to war in Iraq to get Halliburton oil contracts.

The tale would be amusing were it not so ominous for our democracy: 19 of Edwards’s top 20 donors were plaintiffs’ lawyers, 86 percent of his Senate campaign contributions came from personal-injury lawyers, and almost two-thirds of his field-leading presidential-campaign contributions last spring came from trial lawyers, their families, and their staffs. The Edwards campaign has even enjoyed the use of four private jets owned by his trial-lawyer buddies.

The trial lawyers know their compatriot well. Since his election to the Senate, Edwards has voted consistently with their interests–against class-action reforms, against medical-malpractice reforms, against solutions to the asbestos bankruptcy crisis, even against proposed limitations on personal-injury lawsuits in the event of a terrorist attack.

Reasonable minds might differ over each of these pieces of legislation, but Edwards’s steadfast position against any meaningful civil-justice reform is costly, far costlier than the anecdotal wacky cases might imply. The direct costs of America’s tort system–excluding lots of relevant stuff–is over 2 percent of GDP, far more than in any other industrialized nation. That’s the equivalent of a 5 percent tax on wages, or $3,200 annually for the average family of four.

Moreover, the direct costs of the litigation system only scratch the surface of the overall costs to society. Medicine costs more–much more–because doctors perform unnecessary tests, for fear of being sued should they fail to detect unlikely, obscure diseases or complications. Potentially life-saving new products are withheld from the market, or never introduced, because of litigation risks. Out-of-control medical-malpractice suits–of the sort through which John Edwards earned his fortunehave led to serious reductions in access to high-risk specialists. Ob-gyns are leaving obstetrics entirely, making prenatal care scarce in some areas. The American Medical Association now lists 20 states in full-blown crisis.

Class-action magnet courts, which even plaintiffs’ lawyer Dick Scruggs admits are “impossible” places for defendants to get a fair trial, threaten democracy by delegating to elected county-court judges and local juries (who are “in on the deal”) regulatory power over national corporations. Ironically, the Class Action Fairness Act–which is intended to remedy this problem, and which Kerry and Edwards have both consistently opposed–is being debated in the Senate this week.

The list of harms from our broken civil-justice system goes on and on. “The values of America”? Don’t count on it. Those very values–free enterprise, personal responsibility, and the rule of law–are undermined by the perversion of civil justice by John Edwards and the rapacious behemoth that is Trial Lawyers, Inc.

Jim Copland is director of the Center for Legal Policy at the Manhattan Institute and managing editor of the institute’s new website, PointOfLaw.com.


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