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franklin county times

U.S. Chamber wrong for all the right reasons

By By Sid Salter
May 8, 2002
What do we have here? Big Business is attacking poor little Mississippi?
What could possibly motivate the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to issue warnings to the nation's business community not to locate in Mississippi due to the "jackpot justice" situation? Why would they do such a thing? Political advantage? Rancor over being hauled into court for their advertising in the 2000 judicial races? Both?
Probably. To be sure, it's a sleazy tactic designed to prove a point on tort reform. Trouble is, Mississippi can't afford to lose a single advantage in the economic development game. We need the jobs. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce loses credibility in this state by turning us into a pawn for their national agenda.
Of course, based on their lukewarm success in the 2000 judicial races, it appears the group didn't have too much credibility here to begin with. Ask Keith Starrett.
State is a lawsuit haven
But the ad hominem attacks on the U.S. Chamber's "Mississippi warning" by the state's trial lawyers is equally unfounded. Mississippi's reputation as a haven for product liability lawsuits isn't undeserved not by a long shot.
And after taking a look at the campaign finance reports for key lawmakers, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that the prospects for substantive tort reform in Mississippi remain slim-to-anorexic in the legislative venue.
Tort reform is on the back burner in Mississippi because House Speaker Tim Ford and Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck placed it on the back burner. Tort reform legislation routinely dies in legislative committees chaired and dominated by trial lawyers appointed by Ford and Tuck.
In recent days, Ford and Tuck have attempted to change their image on tort reform by convening a legislative "study" committee. But it's clear that the only committees that matter are the Judiciary committees in both houses that actually deal with tort reform legislation.
Ford and Tuck appoint those committees. Shall we "study" the results?
Tuck, Ford called the tune
Tuck appointed 21 senators to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Twelve committee members are lawyers, including the chairman and vice-chairman, and one is married to a lawyer. Ford appointed 25 representatives to the House Judiciary A Committee. Thirteen members, including the chairman and vice-chairman, are lawyers.
Want to talk about campaign finance and tort reform? Take a look at the state representative who chairs the House committee where tort reform legislation lives or dies. It's enlightening.
Let's be clear. I'm not questioning House Judiciary "A" Committee Chairman Rep. Percy Watson's integrity, honesty or obedience of state law. Far as I know and based on a sterling, unblemished record in public service as well Watson, D-Hattiesburg, is as honest as the day is long. That said, one would understand that proponents of tort reform might raise their eyebrows at the simple fact that in 2001, Watson accepted $21,500 in campaign contributions over two-thirds of his total 2001 reported contributions from trial lawyers and from trial lawyer-sponsored political action committees.
Given the fact that tort reform legislation either lives or dies at the whim of the House Judiciary "A" Committee's chairman, Rep. Watson's rather uncanny ability to balance his acceptance of such a huge percentage of his campaign finances from trial lawyers and yet still maintain a fair and open mind on the issue of tort reform is nothing short of amazing.
Equally amazing it will be if business and professional groups continue to allow the trial lawyers and the Legislature to continue their little wink-and-nudge act unchallenged. The U.S. Chamber is wrong but for all the right reasons.

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