January 9, 2004

Lawyer-Legislators Pollute Legal System
by Donald G. Mashburn

A recent editorial in the Wall Street Journal exposed a problem faced in most, if not all, states: Lawyers serving in state legislatures while hustling legal fees. It’s even worse when the offending legal hustlers appear to be peddling their political connections and the legislative positions of power they hold.

In the Oklahoma case, according to a copy of Democratic State Sen. Stratton Taylor’s letter published in the Daily Oklahoman, the hustling involved touting Taylor’s 25 years in the legislature and his previous position as “President Pro Tempore Emeritus of the Oklahoma State Senate.”

That was just one of the titles Sen. Taylor used in an effort to impress Texas trial lawyers, while inviting them to file lawsuits in Oklahoma. Besides the national exposure in the Wall Street Journal piece, Stratton’s blatant pitch caused a statewide furor.

What spurred Taylor’s effort to cash in on future lawsuits was Texas’ new tort reform law. The law bans forum shopping, and limits non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases and certain class action suits. It also shrinks the jackpot Texas trial lawyers hope to hit in class action and civil damage lawsuits.

Taylor’s pitch to Texas lawyers was ugly and self-serving. Still, he might have done the state a favor. If Oklahomans get mad enough over the idea of peddling the state’s legal system, Taylor may have unwittingly helped three causes of great importance to Oklahoma and other states.

Those causes are: 1) tort reform, 2) laws prohibiting legislators from lawyering while in the state legislature, and 3) the absolute necessity of term limits.

Taylor’s pitch to Texas tort lawyers hurts the image of the Oklahoma Legislature, which already suffers from a history of self-serving legislators and anti-business attitudes, while being tightly controlled by Democrats. Taylor’s pitch also indicates that Oklahoma politicians want to wire their political influence directly into the state’s legal system.

Oklahoma’s lawsuit count against businesses is three times the national average. Inviting Texas lawyers to file lawsuits in Oklahoma will severely hamper future efforts to draw new business to the state.

Oklahoma wants to change the negative image generated by Democrats in control of the legislature. To accomplish this, Oklahoma needs first to pass serious and effective tort reform. It could do much worse than copy Texas’ new law.

The second reform needed is a law prohibiting lawyers from practicing law during their terms as lawmakers. The conflict of interest is obvious. Efforts by attorneys and lawyer-judges to protect lawyers’ lucrative status in the state’s legal system should be outlawed.

The third reform of importance is effective term limits. Taylor shows why. Taylor’s letter emphasizes that he’s in his “25th year as a member of the Legislature,” and that he’s “President Pro Tempore Emeritus of the Oklahoma State Senate.” His letter also indicates a willingness to cash in on those circumstances.

State legislators have embarrassed their states before, by acts that were silly, sinful or stupid. The more egregious cases involved greed, bribery, influence peddling, “ghost employees,” and worse.

Acts such as Taylor’s letter only adds to the tarnished images of statehouse politicians nationwide. The Oklahoma Democrat apparently wants to feather his own nest by exploiting his position and influence in state politics. His conspicuous pitch to Texas lawyers to file their lawsuits in Oklahoma, and clog its legal system with more cases, makes the state’s “legislative black eye” even blacker.

If Taylor had mentioned that he’s a lawyer, and available, there would be no problem. But his letter to Texas lawyers clearly touts his political and legislative clout.

And in case Texas trial lawyers missed his credentials, Taylor wrote: “For eight years I was President Pro Tempore of the Oklahoma State Senate, which is the leader of the Senate.”

If they still weren’t impressed, Taylor told the Texas lawyers that he had won “the largest jury verdict in history (sic) in Rogers County, which was a $10 million personal injury verdict in a trucking accident.” Whose “deep pocket” contributed the $10 million, he didn’t say.

Taylor’s bald invitation to Texas lawyers perpetuates an image honorable lawyers want to shed: That “90 percent of trial lawyers give the other 10 percent a bad name.”

The “special club” of trial lawyers who make careers, and fortunes, suing their states and any businesses, professionals or wealthy persons who have “deep pockets,” should be replaced by one formed by voters: “The Former Lawyer-State Legislator Club.” It would include all politicians who collect their pay from taxpayers, while trying to capitalize on a legal system that is broke and crying for repair.

Other names for greedy and venal legislators may be more appropriate, but they can’t be printed in a family publication.