The Rule Of Lawsuits

Originally published at
By K. Daniel Glover

The image that investigative journalist Peter Pringle paints of the typical trial lawyer throughout his 1998 book “Cornered: Big Tobacco at the Bar of Justice” is not a flattering one. If Pringle is to be believed, the attorneys who ply their trade in civil courts are motivated not so much by altruism as by an irrepressible love of money, celebrity and the good life.

Unfortunately for today’s lawyers, many Americans seem to share that view. The public tends to rank attorneys among the likes of politicians, used-car salesmen and, yes, journalists. People think not of the glorified television lawyer Perry Mason but of the more recent buffoon Jackie Chiles of “Seinfeld” fame.

The animosity toward the legal profession is nothing new, of course. William Shakespeare gave voice to lawyer bashing centuries ago when, within “Henry IV, Part Two,” he penned these words: “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” But the seemingly ceaseless outcry against attorneys has raised anew the question of what, if anything, should be done to curb the filing of civil lawsuits.

Understanding the discontent
Signs of mistrust in the current system of civil law, both among the public and the people who represent them, are abundant. Consider, for example, that Republicans rose to congressional power in 1995 in part because of their efforts at changing the rules of product liability suits, one of the 10 legislative goals of the “Contract with America.” And remember that in 1998, both the House and Senate conducted hearings on bills that would have altered the legal framework for punitive damages and class-action lawsuits.

“I am truly and deeply disturbed over what some members of our profession … have done to one area of the law,” former Attorney General Richard Thornburgh told a House Judiciary subcommittee last year. “To put it simply, they have found ways to pervert the class-action device and other aggregation tools, transforming them into their personal litigation lottery.”

There is also anecdotal evidence, including the emergence of grassroots groups like the Association for California Tort Reform, Michigan Lawsuit Abuse Watch and the Association American Tort Reform, which regularly identify what they see as frivolous lawsuits. Or type the phrase “litigious society” into almost any Web search engine and see just how trite it has become.


Book Review: ‘The Greatest Generation’

Originally published at
By K. Daniel Glover

Every time my wife, Kimberly, and I see evidence of the character flaws of self-indulgent baby boomers or their spoiled children born into Generation X, we share this lament: America needs a good depression — maybe a replay of the Great Depression. What better way to awaken a society of parents who live off credit and children who traipse around the mall with cell phones and pagers, we wonder. We are only half-joking.

Perhaps, as the saying goes, we should be careful what we wish for. But after having read “The Greatest Generation,” television newscaster Tom Brokaw’s first attempt at book-length non-fiction, we are more convinced than ever that America and her profligate people desperately need a heavy dose of humility.

Portrait of a generation
The book has its genesis in two trips that Brokaw, a three-decades-plus veteran of NBC News and currently the sole anchor and managing editor of its NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw, made to Normandy, France. Both trips were to commemorate, for NBC viewers, the 40th and 50th anniversaries of the Allied forces’ D-Day invasion of Europe during World War II.

The first trip, in 1984, triggered what Brokaw calls “a life-changing experience.” He suddenly realized just how much his father’s contemporaries had sacrificed for their nation. They had endured, with no respite in between, both modern history’s greatest economic calamity and arguably its most horrific war.

Soon after Brokaw visited the sands of Normandy for another D-Day retrospective in 1994, he knew he had the makings of a book. Who would not want to read of “a generation that, by and large, made no demands of homage from those who followed and prospered economically, politically and culturally because of its sacrifices … a generation of towering achievement and modest demeanor”?

Brokaw’s thesis is captivating, to be sure. And the book is a quick and easy read, in part because of the numerous photographic memories of the grass-roots Americans who act as the main characters.

Congress At The Margins

Originally published at
By K. Daniel Glover

The Gingrich era, and perhaps the Republican revolution he envisioned four years ago, is over. The Livingston era ended before it began. The House impeachment of President Clinton, arguably the most noteworthy achievement of the 105th Congress (whether for good or bad), is but a memory to a disinterested public. And political control in Washington is as marginal as it has been in decades.

So as the 106th Congress begins, where do we go from here? A good question indeed — and one that newly anointed House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., himself asked rhetorically just before his Jan. 6 coronation. Hastert wondered aloud about the possibilities of stalemate in a House where Republicans hold the narrowest majority (222-211) in 46 years, of a Democratic president who may want revenge for an impeachment he sees as partisan, or of a minority determined to squelch any majority-backed legislation as both parties look to the election of a new president and Congress in 2000.

Any of those scenarios, or all of them, may emerge in coming months. Or Congress and the president may rise above the partisanship of 1998 (which increased 5 percent over 1997, according to a recent analysis by Congressional Quarterly). But for congressional observers who cannot wait for the perennial power struggle to unfold, a look at the past may offer some insights to the future.

A different world
Marginal control within Congress — defined as either a difference of 20 House seats or less or five Senate seats or less for this story — is quite rare. (The most recent example: Republicans had majorities of 221-213 in the House and 48-47 in the Senate during the first two years of Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower’s first presidential term.) And in some respects, the 106th Congress will be breaking new ground.

For starters, it will govern with a narrow majority during a time of relative calm. In the past, narrow majorities have occurred amidst upheaval — during westward expansion (30th Congress), as the nation contemplated slavery (31st), at the close of Reconstruction (45th), just before World War I (65th), at the outset of the Great Depression (72nd) and in the early years of the Cold War (83rd), for example.

The current Congress also will feature the first battle between a term-limited president in his final two years and a House controlled just barely by the opposition party. Presidents as obscure as Martin Van Buren and Benjamin Harrison ruled during times of marginal control of Congress, but they did so earlier in their terms or just before facing voters’ rejection at the polls. The same is true of more familiar, and more popular, presidents like Democrat Woodrow Wilson and Eisenhower.