Palin's take on legal reform unknown; Biden said to be too cozy with trial lawyers

By Chris Rizo | Sep 10, 2008

Sarah Palin (R)

Joe Biden (D)

Philip Howard

James Copland

WASHINGTON (Legal Newsline)-Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin's views on a bevy of national issues remain unknown, not the least of which is her take on the nation's legal landscape.

Leading tort reform advocates told Legal Newsline that they know little to nothing about the first-term Alaska governor's view on legal reform.

"I am not aware that Governor Palin has any record," said Philip Howard, founder and chair of Common Good, a bipartisan coalition that advocates for legal reform.

Palin's public comments on national legal issues have been limited to her comments blasting the U.S. Supreme Court for reducing the punitive damages award to victims of the Exxon Valdez spill, which left 11 million gallons of crude oil in Prince William Sound after the Exxon tanker ran aground.

In the Exxon case, a divided Supreme Court in June reduced the $2.5 billion punitive damages award in the long-running lawsuit to no more than $507.5 million, ruling 5-3 that the original award was excessive.

In a statement, Palin said she was very disappointed with the decision. She said the nation's highest court "gutted the jury's decision on punitive damages" and undercut an important deterrent against future maritime shipping accidents.

"It is tragic that so many Alaska fishermen and their families have had their lives put on hold waiting for this decision," Palin said. "My heart goes out to those affected, especially the families of the thousands of Alaskans who passed away while waiting for justice."

Palin's objection's to the ruling could be at least partly politically motivated and might not be an accurate representation of her view on the role of punitive damages, Howard said.

"That is money that would have gone into her pot. People act differently when it's in their self interest," said Howard, who wrote "The Collapse of the Common Good: How America's Lawsuit Culture Undermines Our Freedom."

James Copland, director of the Center for Legal Policy at the Manhattan Institute, too said Palin's record on tort reform is widely a blank slate.

"There isn't much of one," Copland said of Palin's record on legal issues. "There is clearly one thing that I disagreed with her on," he added, referring to Palin's critique of the Supreme Court decision in the long-running Exxon Valdez case.

"She critiqued it harshly, but then again she is the Alaska governor, and they are the ones who suffered," Copland said. "I understand politically why that would happen, but she is not a lawyer so I don't know that I would have expected a real nuanced critique."

Copland said he is interested in learning more about Palin's legal philosophy, noting that Palin leads the only state in the union where lawsuit losers pay the legal fees and expenses of the winners.

The system is credited for discouraging frivolous lawsuits. Alaska ranks twentieth among all fifty states in the fairness of its litigation environment, according to an annual Harris Poll survey of in-house corporate counsels around the nation.

"To me the most interesting thing about the Palin (nomination) has nothing to do with her policies, but that she is the governor of Alaska, which is the only state with a loser pays system," Copland said.

Gerald McBeath, chair of the political science department at the University of Alaska's Fairbanks campus, said Palin's views on some national issues are not known because the issues were not relevant to Alaska politics, which is widely considered somewhat provincial.

"We have no issues of immigration here nor do we recently have any issues with tort reform, so why would her positions on those issues be relevant?" McBeath said.

On Republican presidential hopeful John McCain's campaign Web site it says the McCain-Palin ticket supports efforts to curb frivolous lawsuits.

"We must pass medical liability reform that eliminates lawsuits directed at doctors who follow clinical guidelines and adhere to safety protocols. Every patient should have access to legal remedies in cases of bad medical practice but that should not be an invitation to endless, frivolous lawsuits," the Web site says.

As for Palin's opponent, Democratic vice presidential nominee U.S. Sen. Joe Biden, he has been widely criticized by tort reform advocates for his role in thwarting legislation aimed at reducing the number of asbestos lawsuits.

The Delaware senator, as a member of the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee, actively opposed a bill that would have replaced thousands of lawsuits with a trust fund for asbestos victims. The bill was defeated in 2006 amid Democratic opposition.

He has also raked in campaign cash from one of the nation's largest asbestos litigation firms: SimmonsCooper LLC. The Center for Responsive Politics says the East Alton, Ill.-based firm and its employees shelled out about $200,000 for Biden's campaigns since 2001, making the firm his No. 1 campaign contributor.

"Senator Biden has a pretty clear record of being close to the trial lawyers. To people who are interested in restoring reliability to the legal system, he's probably unlikely to be the champion," said Howard of Common Good.

Palin too has been criticized by some detractors. In her case, it's for having no experience on national and foreign policy issues. But McCain on Sunday said Palin has a solid record as a government reformer.

"This is the most popular governor in America. She has a clear record of doing what Americans want first and uppermost -- reform. Reform. She's not only talked about it, but she's done it, and she took on the people in her own party," McCain said on the CBS News program "Face the Nation."

From Legal Newsline: Reach reporter Chris Rizo at chrisrizo@legalnewsline.com.

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