Bush Takes On the Lawyers

November 23, 1991

President Bush has jumped in where Vice President Dan Quayle dared to tread by asserting that the civil justice system in America has "spun out of control." "The fear of outlandish litigation has begun to strangle the American dream," he declared recently, adding that reform is "absolutely essential to the country's well-being."

The president thus took up Mr. Quayle's theme that an explosion of law suits in this country is undercutting the U.S. competitive position. It will be interesting to see if law associations and citizens advocacy groups are quite so vociferous in their retorts now that the debate has been elevated to the Oval Office.

When the vice president made his provocative remarks in August at the annual convention of the American Bar Association, he was harshly criticized to his face by the then ABA president, John J. Curtin, Jr. But Mr. Quayle drew plaudits from U.S. industry groups that contend excessive litigation places them at a disadvantage in world markets, discourages the introduction of new products and drives up consumer prices.

The President's Council on Competitiveness, chaired by Mr. Quayle, has suggested no less than 50 different reforms to speed justice, reduce the costs of litigation, discourage the introduction of frivolous suits and curb suspect expert testimony -- what Mr. Bush has called "the use of junk science on the witness stand." As a follow-up to Mr. Quayle's initiative -- perhaps the vice president's most popular move since his RTC nomination -- the president has issued orders to government litigators instructing them to try to follow new administration guidelines to implement the Quayle recommendations.

While this gesture may be mostly rhetorical in its practical impact, it is important that the presidential stamp of approval has been applied. Despite the passion brought to the debate by trial lawyers seeking to protect their livelihood and advocacy groups that consider law suits the individual's best safeguard against unsafe products, medical malpractice and the like, the huge costs of litigation are a serious problem in American society. They need to be addressed, and not just in the adversarial courtroom manner that has been exhibited to date.

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