Baldwin Good, ALEC bad
Alec Baldwin is a star of the large and small screens. He is good and funny. ALEC, on the other hand, is no laughing matter. And there is nothing good about ALEC, unless you’re one of the big companies that funds its work and benefits from its efforts to curtail individual rights.
Most of us knew nothing about ALEC – the American Legislative Exchange Council – until the Trayvon Martin controversy. ALEC led the way in Florida (and other states) lobbying for passing a Stand Your Ground law, which is now the basis for George Zimmerman’s defense against charges he shot shot dead an unarmed teenager.
If you don’t know much about ALEC, you should and a good place to start is a new report, issued earlier this month by the group Take Back Our Courts, a project of the Pennsylvania-based Keystone Progress. The report, “Justice Denied in Pennsylvania,” examines ALEC’s background and its agenda as well as its influence on Pennsylvania legislators.
Why single out ALEC for study? Isn’t lobbying for a special-interest agenda simply the way business gets done in politics today? According to “Justice Denied,” because of the usually unpublicized infiltration of groups like ALEC, and the deep ties ALEC has within many state legislatures, “the very nature of our government as a republic is being challenged.”
Why worry about a special interest lobbying organization just because it seems to be successful? Listen to ALEC, after all, and its goals sound all-American. According to its website, ALEC works to “advance the fundamental principles of free-market enterprise, limited government, and federalism at the state level through a nonpartisan public-private partnership of America’s state legislators, members of the private sector and the general public.”
Here’s the problem: “Free market” here means freedom for ALEC’s several hundred corporate members, including the likes of Bayer (drugs), Altria (tobacco), State Farm (insurance), Exxon (energy) and their law firms and billionaire financiers (like the Koch brothers). Freedom from what? Mostly this means freedom from regulations to protect workers and consumers and relief from laws that favor big companies and limit the rights of individuals.
Also, ALEC is not bipartisan. Although a number of Pennsylvania House and Senate members have joined a few companies in publicly distancing themselves from ALEC in the wake of the Trayvon Martin controversy, according to the Justice Denied report, nearly 50 Pennsylvania state legislators are ALEC members or supporters. And they are all Republicans.
The “Justice Denied” report focuses particularly on the efforts of ALEC’s Civil Justice Task Force. ALEC’s idea of “civil justice” is one that only a large corporation could love. In the past, ALEC’s legislative initiatives in this area, for example, have included re-writing Pennsylvania’s successor liability law to protect asbestos companies like ALEC-member Crown Holdings from legal responsibility to thousands of workers who were injured or got lung cancer due to asbestos exposure. ALEC has supported the re-writing of the law on joint and several liability, which severely limits the ability of an injured person to collect full compensation from wrongdoers.
We don’t need more tort reform in Pennsylvania
ALEC continues to beat the drum for tort reform even though Pennsylvania has already seen major revisions to its tort laws. In 2002, the Pennsylvania legislature passed sweeping measures to limit medical malpractice cases, including new requirements that Affidavits of Merit from qualified physicians be obtained prior to filing any medical negligence case. Pennsylvania also passed venue reform, which required that any medical malpractice case could only be filed in the county where the medical care took place. This had the effect of protecting large health care systems based in Philadelphia, like the University of Pennsylvania and Jefferson Health System. As a result the number of medical malpractice cases filed each year in Philadelphia County has dropped by about two-thirds.
There is no evidence that further “tort reform” is needed. There is no claim that insurance premiums are too high or that the number of cases filed is excessive. Even in Philadelphia County, which ALEX and its supports decry as “a judicial hellhole,” doctors and hospitals who defend themselves in medical malpractice cases at trial still prevail in better than 7 out of 10 cases.
Yet ALEC still presses its “civil justice” agenda in Pennsylvania, including its leading initiative, a push for a cap on damages, especially non-economic damages for pain and suffering, sometimes called “quality of life” damages. An arbitrary cap on non-economic damages would well serve the interest of companies, that want to limit the amount a jury can award for a botched surgery or a defective product. Limiting damages for pain and suffering would have a devastating impact on individuals.
Try talking to someone who has suffered a devastating injury and feels the impact of that injury every day, in all of the little things, what we call “activities of daily living.” How do you limit compensation for the inability to lift your child? Or intractable pain that prevents your being able to pull up your socks? Or restrictions in movement that prevent the ability to appreciate the simplest of pleasures of life? The idea that there would be no compensation for such losses or an arbitrary limit placed on such losses – all to reduce the liability of a corporate defendant or an insurance company – is unfair in the extreme.
A cap on damages also produces highly inequitable results. Think of two similar cases involving a negligent surgery resulting in the amputation of the patient’s leg, an unquestionably devastating injury. If the individual has a job outside the home, is now disabled from work and earned, say $30,000 a year, then that lost income becomes an important element of the damages claim. If, on the other hand, the individual is an at-home parent or is elderly, and so has no outside income, then non-economic damages may be the only meaningful damages claim the person has.
The Trayvon Martin case brought ALEC out of the shadows and into the light. Stand Your Ground laws, like the one in Florida, apparently passed through the legislative process without attracting much notice until the implications – as seen in the Martin case – came clear. The idea behind Stand Your Ground is that a person can use lethal force to defend himself, without a duty to retreat, wherever he might be. Previously, this idea was limited to self-defense when in one’s home. Apparently, ALEC, standing with groups like the NRA, believes that the 2nd Amendment means that gun-carrying citizens should have greater freedom to use their weapons outside the home.
ALEC received unwanted attention through the Trayvon Martin case and this led some companies, like Coca Cola, to withdraw from ALEC. Johnson and Johnson is the most recent ALEC supporter to distance itself from the group.
We need more light, more transparency, not less, when it comes to ALEC. There may be nothing unlawful about the lobbying it does, but ALEC should not be allowed to operate in secret. The “Justice Denied” report goes a long way to exposing ALEC, its corporate sponsors, its members in Harrisburg, and the dangerous agenda ALEC is pressing to have enacted into law.