When United Steelworkers President Leo Gerard described the Democratic Party's focus on "the people who take showers after work, not before," he most certainly did not have trial lawyers in mind. But the plaintiff's bar has long been one of the Democrats' most ardent and loyal special interest groups, a source of perennial financial support to the party.
A detailed Washington Examiner analysis of the top 110 plaintiffs' firms in America shows that their employees and partners gave about $7.3 million to political campaigns during the last cycle, with almost every penny -- 97 percent -- going to Democrats. The remaining 3 percent was split almost evenly between independent Senate candidate Charlie Crist of Florida and Republican candidates for federal office.
The political action committee of the American Association for Justice, the trial lawyers' top trade group, was equally friendly to Democrats, giving the party and its candidates 97 percent of AAJ's $2.7 million in 2010 contributions.
Amazingly, the Democratic bias is even more pronounced when only the top 10 plaintiffs firms are considered, with employees and partners there giving $3,459,477 in contributions to federal candidates in 2010, with more than 99 percent going to Democrats and less than 1 percent to Republicans.
In Washington, that kind of generosity translates into clout. In AAJ's case, it provided cover for the group's $4 million lobbying effort on Capitol Hill last year. AAJ scored its first congressional victory on the first bill Obama signed as president -- the Lilly Ledbetter Act, which abolished the statute of limitations on certain gender-discrimination lawsuits against employers.
Trial lawyers also scored a total victory on health care reform, preventing any reforms whatsoever to the malpractice tort system, the source of jackpot settlements and jury awards in many states. Excessive malpractice awards and the resulting practice of defensive medicine add $56 billion to medical costs each year, according to a recent study by the journal Health Affairs.
The trial lawyers' agenda stalled out on the automotive safety bill, which failed to pass Congress last year. But even here, it is impressive to see what some Democratic members of Congress tried to do to help expand the universe of deep pockets into which lawyers can reach.
Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, a trial lawyer himself and a former president of the Iowa Trial Lawyers Association, inserted a provision in subcommittee that would have let state juries, instead of federal regulators, decide whether automobile designs are adequately safe. The legislative language written by Braley, who received $80,000 in The Examiner's analysis of trial lawyers and $10,000 from AAJ's PAC, also would have attached liability to rental and leasing companies for injuries caused by renters' negligent driving.
With Congress now in less friendly hands, AAJ will turn its attention to a White House that has been very friendly already. Linda Lipsen, AAJ's top lobbyist, visited the White House 11 times in 2009.
After one of these visits, in May of that year, President Obama signed an obscure memorandum ordering federal regulators to re-examine federal regulations that keep federally regulated businesses from being sued in state courts.
One favor the trial lawyers have not yet received but often discuss is a special income tax break. It would let them deduct immediately the loans they make to cover their clients' costs in contingency fee cases. No other lender receives such tax treatment. This break would allow trial lawyers to take more cases -- and more cases that are less likely to succeed.
At AAJ's 2009 convention, Lipsen described a strategy of attaching this $1.6 billion tax break to another bill: "You cannot have a stand-alone bill to help lawyers," she said. "So we have to tuck it into something."
This failed to happen, and in July 2010, her successor, John Bowman, told a closed-door session that the Obama Treasury Department was on the verge of granting the tax break administratively. The leak of this disclosure prompted a group of Republicans in Congress to write the Treasury Department in protest, which may have prevented the change from happening, at least for now.
Don't expect Democrats to become born-again medical malpractice reformers, either, even after in his State of the Union address, Obama went so far as to say he was "willing to look at ... medical malpractice reform to rein in frivolous lawsuits." But even here, Obama had not deviated from the trial lawyers' standard line.
Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts and his vice presidential running mate, former North Carolina trial lawyer John Edwards, did not lose trial lawyers' support in 2004 when they embraced proposals to rein in "frivolous lawsuits," because none of Edwards' million-dollar jackpot malpractice suits would have been considered "frivolous."
The real problem in the world of medical liability is not frivolous cases -- which are extremely rare, thanks to malpractice insurers' legal teams -- but excessive jury awards. If Obama were serious about reform, he would advocate caps on these awards. Don't hold your breath waiting for this to happen..
David Freddoso is online editor for The Washington Examiner.