18 Nov

House Republican Leaders Mislead Members About Reagan on Tort Reform

In a briefing paper sent to House Republican staff, a House Republican leader and the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Lamar Smith, are misquoting Ronald Reagan on the subject of tort reform. Reagan spoke about tort reform only once in his career, and in that speech specifically referred to the states’ authority to run their own civil justice system under the Constitution. Yet that statement is excluded from the GOP leaders briefing paper to Members on H.R. 5. I wrote a lengthy post about this on January 24 of this year. Here is what Reagan said in that speech, including a sentence in which Reagan defended states’ rights over tort law:

“Earlier this year I endorsed the report of my Domestic Policy Council’s Tort Policy Working Group. This report contains a number of recommendations, recommendations that include fixed-dollar limitations for certain kinds of awards and the establishment of assurances that liability judgments go to those actually wronged or injured and not to the lining of their attorney’s pockets. Now, one of the report’s most important recommendations urged our administration to submit reform legislation to the Congress.

This legislation, carefully drafted, has now been introduced in the Congress by Senator Robert Kasten and Congressman Hamilton Fish. It restores the fault standard, which requires that actual fault or wrongdoing must be established in most cases before liability can be assessed. It limits pain-and-suffering and punitive damage awards, awards the amount contingency-fee lawyers could earn, and restricts the joint and several liability doctrine that can force a single defendant to pay all damages even if he is only partly to blame. To be sure, much tort law would remain to be reformed by the 50 States, not the Federal Government. And in our Federal system of government this is only right. Many of the Tort Policy Working Group recommendations, for example, would have to be implemented at the State level to be fully effective. This administration’s bill represents a much-needed overhaul of Federal laws governing interstate commerce –one of the fields of authority the Federal Government is specifically granted by the Constitution — and sets an example of common sense for the rest of the Nation to follow.”

THE GOP LEADERSHIP PAPER TO MEMBERS EXCLUDE REAGAN’S DEFENSE OF STATES’ RIGHTS. Moreover, the paper excludes that fact that Reagan never proposed a federal tort reform bill in any State of the Union message or any economic proposal.

Ronald Reagan was a true constitutional conservative, and tort reform was not on his radar. To misquote him on this subject is a terrible disservice to his legacy and to those of us who worked for him in his Administration.