Columns » Max Brantley

You want tort reform? Try this.

by

comment

The nursing home industry and the chamber of commerce finally defeated the trial lawyers in the 2017 legislature. The Republican-dominated body approved a constitutional amendment for voters in 2018 that they'll depict as close to motherhood in goodness.

If approved, they'll tell you, greedy lawyers will still be able to dream up nuisance suits against saintly doctors and pristine nursing homes, but their contingency fees will be limited and strict caps will be placed on both punitive and "non-economic" damages. Non-economic damage? That's pain and suffering, even death. Children and the elderly who can prove no loss of income from neglect and abuse are entitled to little for their torment because, really, what are they worth?

The trial lawyers will spend plenty to stop what amounts to stripping the Arkansas Constitution of the right to a jury trial for damages. But perverse Arkansas — though no home to runaway juries or financially strained nursing home owners or doctors — is inclined to buy propositions that the chamber of commerce declares good for business. (If being hospitable to business and inhospitable to workers was a ticket to economic Glory Land, Arkansas would be Silicon Valley, the Research Triangle and the Johnson Space Center rolled into one.) Alas, you know the reality.

But some hope emerged this week. The Arkansas Bar Association is working on a constitutional amendment. It doesn't have endorsement of its governing body yet. But it would force the nursing home titans and chamber executives to double their spending to pass one amendment and beat another. The bar amendment does more than nullify the damage limits proposed by the legislature.

The marquee provision would shine light on "dark money," undisclosed independent spending in political races that played an enormous factor in recent races for Supreme Court and attorney general. Contributors would be disclosed and, in the case of judicial races, held to normal campaign spending limits.

The amendment also would finally end legislative pork barreling, in which legislators defy the constitution and divvy up state surplus for personal projects. The practice has turned felonious at times. Some recent legislative mug shots taken following bribery arrests could serve as campaign material.

The amendment also would restore balance of power. The courts would continue to be responsible for court rules, if not substantive law. The legislature could override a gubernatorial veto, but only with a two-thirds vote, not a simple majority. The amendment would overturn a legislative initiative that put control of executive agency rules in the hands of a legislative committee.

The legislature tried to discourage such popular initiatives with a punishing new law for people who pay to gather signatures on amendment petitions. The bar association hopes to rely on volunteer labor and thus avoid the new rules on paid canvassing. It hopes, too, that the resistance movement born in President Trump's election will respond to a measure that's about ethics, good government and the welfare of the young and infirm. We're a Trump state, true, but there's a historic strain of populism here; 85,000 valid signatures by July 2018 would give voters a chance to demonstrate it.

UNRELATED SUBJECT: Brett Williamson, a hired hand for the Murphy Oil fortune, gave a poor illustration of public service last week. Four Little Rock School District supporters used the state Board of Education's public comment period to make a heartfelt plea that the board return the district to local control. Board member Williamson's response:

"With all due respect, I'm tired of hearing about the Little Rock School District. I've had it, OK? "

Solutions for Williamson: 1) Give Little Rock its school board back and 2) resign from the state Board of Education.

Add a comment

Clicky