Clinton administration pledges fight on Republican tort-reform legislation

March 06, 1995|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- The Clinton administration has decided to wage a vigorous fight against legislation that would drastically reshape the nation's civil law system, White House officials said yesterday.

In a letter to be delivered on today to House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., the administration will warn that central provisions in the landmark legislation are too extreme and would "tilt the legal playing field dramatically to the disadvantage of consumers and middle-class citizens" by making it more difficult for them to bring lawsuits for damages when they are injured.

Until now, the White House and the Justice Department have remained silent about the Republican-backed measures, which will reach the floor of the House today.

The legislation would make major changes in the current system. The measures would set federal standards in all product-injury lawsuits, even those decided by state courts; would impose strict limits on punitive damages in all civil cases; and would require the loser in many lawsuits to pay legal costs of the winner.

But after an internal debate within the White House and the Justice Department, Attorney General Janet Reno and Abner J. Mikva, the White House counsel, decided over the weekend to make their objections public.

In their letter to Mr. Gingrich, they describe central elements of the legislation as "deeply problematic" and criticized several aspects as "unfair, unnecessary and unwise."

In an interview, Mr. Mikva was even more blunt in criticizing the measures as favoring business interests over those of ordinary Americans. He said the legislation would make it more difficult for "the average middle-class consumer to try to get his wrongs redressed."

"When I look at bills like these, I can believe that Speaker Gingrich means what he says when he describes himself as a revolutionary," said Mr. Mikva, a former congressman and former chief judge of the U.S. District Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

Administration officials said they were mindful that the Republican-backed proposals carried a powerful political appeal.

With public opinion polls showing that many Americans have come to see the legal system as too litigious, Ms. Reno and Mr. Mikva say in their letter to Mr. Gingrich that the administration is eager to work with Congress to settle on acceptable improvements.

But after standing by as the overhaul plan sailed through the House Judiciary and Commerce Committees, administration officials left no doubt yesterday that President Clinton and his aides intended to push for major modifications now that the measures have reached the House floor and will soon move on to the Senate.

The letter from Mr. Mikva and Ms. Reno does not say whether Mr. Clinton will veto the legislation as it now stands, nor does it say whether they will recommend that he do so. But in the interview during the weekend, Mr. Mikva suggested strongly that Mr. Clinton was likely to use his veto to block the overhaul if the bills remained in their current form.

If the measures become law, they would discourage tens of thousands of lawsuits each year in the federal and state court systems, both supporters and opponents say. The legislation would also make it significantly harder for consumers who are injured to win large verdicts in product liability cases, and in all areas of the law, it would limit punitive damages to $250,000, or three times the compensatory damages, whichever is greater.

The administration will raise its strongest objections to a measure that would in many circumstances require losers to pay the winners' legal fees, the letter to Mr. Gingrich shows.

That proposal, which would affect the tens of thousands of cases filed annually in federal district courts under state law, would impose for the first time in U.S. courtrooms a "loser pays" rule.

But while its supporters say the requirement will discourage nuisance lawsuits, the administration warns in the letter that it will "work a significant injustice, particularly against parties that have fewer resources."

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