Saturday, February 21, 2004

Voters in Northeast Texas cast the ballots, but, viewed from another perspective, a Houston-based business group with a seemingly insatiable appetite for erecting courthouse barriers to consumers purchased itself another state senator.

Bought and paid for? You be the judge

By CLAY ROBISON, Houston Chronicle
Feb. 21, 2004.

Voters in Northeast Texas cast the ballots, but, viewed from another perspective, a Houston-based business group with a seemingly insatiable appetite for erecting courthouse barriers to consumers purchased itself another state senator.

Plaintiffs' lawyers also were active in the high-stakes bidding war that ended with last week's special election runoff in state Senate District 1. But they were outgunned in a Republican-leaning district in a Republican era in which businesses, their interests and their largess are driving Texas' political power train.

Business interests, of course, also were major political players during the many years of Democratic dominance in Texas. But Republicans not only have given them the run of the candy store, they also have given them title to the premises.

Chalk up another victory for business with the election of Republican Kevin Eltife, a former mayor of Tyler, to serve the remaining three years (almost) of former Sen. Bill Ratliff's term. Ratliff, R-Mount Pleasant, resigned earlier this year, burned out after 15 years of lawmaking and weary from growing statehouse partisanship.

Eltife defeated Democrat Paul Sadler, a former state representative from Henderson, who once was praised by then-Gov. George W. Bush for his work on improving education, the type of experience that could have come in handy as lawmakers -- either this year or next -- try to write a new school finance plan.

This time, though, Sadler was high on the political enemies' list compiled by Gov. Rick Perry and other Republican leaders, in large part because he is a lawyer who has been known to represent plaintiffs against business defendants.

Sadler's most vitriolic opponent, however, wasn't Perry -- or even Eltife. It was Texans for Lawsuit Reform (TLR for short), which spent more than $1 million -- most of which was raised outside the Northeast Texas district -- attacking the Democratic candidate with local television and radio commercials, newspapers ads, direct mail and -- who knows? -- maybe even carrier pigeons.

Sadler and Eltife, during their campaign, debated a number of issues, including education, taxes and gay marriages. But the only issue that mattered to TLR was litigation, especially litigation over asbestos. They want the Legislature to enact a state law that would make most of it go away.

Plaintiffs' lawyers, who contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to Sadler's campaign, also were single-mindedly focused on litigation. But their goal, of course, was to block or at least slow down further business efforts to get new legal restrictions clamped on civil lawsuits and damage judgments against corporate defendants.

Texans for Lawsuit Reform has been a leader in recent years of successful campaigns imposing such restrictions, including a major law enacted last year that, among other things, set new limits on certain damages in consumer suits brought against doctors and hospitals for malpractice.

The group's next major goal is attacking a mountain of suits seeking billions of dollars in damages for exposure -- either real or imagined -- to asbestos. Exposure can be disabling or deadly, and asbestos fibers were once widespread in the air that many Americans breathed.

Its use was abandoned by industry years ago, but, according to TLR, more than 20,000 asbestos claims are pending in Texas courts. The vast majority of those, the group says, were filed by plaintiffs' lawyers on behalf of people allegedly exposed years ago but who haven't yet become sick -- or may never become sick. In some cases, companies that never made or sold asbestos products have been held liable for damages because they purchased companies that previously had used the substance.

Texans for Lawsuit Reform is pushing legislation, which died in the Senate last year, to set a priority for asbestos suits. Under the proposal, people who already are suffering from asbestos-related illnesses or the families of those who have died would get to proceed with their suits. Claimants who weren't sick yet would be put on a waiting list and wouldn't get their day in court unless they became ill.

Plaintiffs' lawyers argue that it could take years for illnesses to develop, and by that time there may be no money left to pay their claims.

TLR, operating independently of the Eltife campaign, attacked Sadler with a vengeance, not only because he has filed asbestos claims for clients but also because he was receiving campaign funds from law firms profiting from asbestos suits. Capitalizing on the Iraqi war, the business group even aired ads raising questions about Sadler's support for the military.

Has Eltife been bought and paid for? Well, TLR's leaders and contributors -- businesspeople all -- certainly believe their attacks against Sadler -- who lost by 4 percentage points -- were a sound investment.