Former Senate majority leader Reid hits out, but remembered for unwavering support of trial lawyers

By John Breslin | Jan 8, 2019


Former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was in typically combative form recently as he described President Donald Trump as "amoral" and the worst president ever, with no close second.

Reid, in his first interview with the New York Times since he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, said, “As soon as you discover you have something on your pancreas, you’re dead.”

Tough, combative too, then, as he admits to facing death.

While the interview focused on his views on what is happening in Washington now, on Trump, and, in a key part, on his lack of regret over the elimination of the filibuster for judicial nominees, Reid is also remembered for his unwavering support of the trial lawyer lobby during his time in the Senate.

"Whether it be cases involving slip-and-fall. Whether it be cases involving very complicated products liability. Whether it be class actions. Whether it be securities cases. Sen. Reid has been our biggest champion,” Linda Lipsen, chief executive of the country's trial lawyer group said at a fundraiser held in Montreal in July 2015.

Reid, who admitted to raising $1 million on that day alone, was flown to the fundraiser on a lawyer's private jet, according to a report in Politico. The former Senate Majority Leader characterized the money as a bulwark against the influence of Super PACs, including those run by the Koch brothers.

Lipsen added, "On asbestos. On asbestos we won by one vote. One vote. Why did we win by one vote? Because Sen. Reid asked Sen. [Daniel] Inouye to take a walk. One vote — Sen. Reid. If not for Sen. Reid, every victim in this country of asbestos poisoning would have no remedy and no rights. Sen. Reid did that. It’s unbelievable.”

She was referring to the great asbestos debate of 2005-2006, and the attempt to introduce legislation setting up a $140  billion trust fund - paid for by corporations and insurance companies - to  compensate, on a largely no-fault basis, those who suffered as a result of their exposure to the deadly mineral. 

It capped legal fees at five percent.

Inouye, the longtime senator from Hawaii who died in 2012, told the New York Times at the time of his non-vote that he had gone home because his wife was ill.

Designed largely to remove arguments over asbestos compensation from the civil courts, it was one of the few meaningful legislative runs at reforming the asbestos compensation system, and it failed.

The Fairness in Asbestos Injury Resolution Act, crafted by former Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and two years in the making, managed to pass the Judiciary Committee and head on to the floor of the Senate.

Reid led the opposition to the bill, stating, "The problem seems to be that the so-called FAIR Act places the needs of a few large companies with asbestos liability above the needs of those suffering from asbestos-related illness. This is the fundamental flaw of the legislation itself."

As the Senate debated the measure in February 2006, there were some heated exchanges, including between Specter and Reid.

Reid accused some Senate members of bowing to pressure from lobbyists. "Washington has been run by the lobbyists. The Jack Abramoff scandal is no surprise," Reid said, referring to the lobbyist who served four years in prison on corruption charges.

"To accuse us of being the pawns of the lobbyists is — is — is beyond slander, beyond insult," Specter countered. "It's beyond outrage." Reid did apologize.

The bill did manage to move forward as the Senate voted 98-1 to consider its merits. Even Reid voted in favor. A week later, it died.

It faced opposition not just from Reid and other Democrats, but also conservative Republicans fearful that the taxpayer might pick up the cost if the $140 billion did not cover the compensation. The Congressional Budget Office had estimated it fell $8 billion short.

Reid's fellow senator from Nevada, John Ensign, a Republican, pushed for a vote, arguing that a Senate rule requiring 60 votes on bills likely to cost more than $5 billion applied. The Senate voted 58-41, with those in favor narrowly falling short of gathering the numbers to move it forward.

While trial lawyers opposed the bill, it also faced opposition from the insurance industry, which believed its members could be on the hook for much more than what was estimated, and from representatives of small and medium businesses embroiled in asbestos litigation who felt they could end up paying more into the trust than through litigation.

Though Reid is remembered for his intervention in the asbestos debate, he also played a pivotal part in killing a bill designed to curb so-called patent trolls, a group of companies that have mushroomed in the high tech era. Their modus operandi is to take out vaguely crafted patents, then pepper companies with infringement claims.

Reid was instrumental in killing the Innovation Act, which would have forced plaintiffs to lay out more clearly their claims and limit expensive pre-trial discovery. It overwhelmingly passed the House, but died in the Senate. Plaintiff lawyers were among those who opposed the act.

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