The punch line is that Vice President Dan Quayle is the nation's highest-ranking elected official who is a lawyer. Is this another lawyer joke or another Quayle joke? No one was laughing during Quayle's speech before the American Bar Assn.'s annual meeting earlier this month, an occasion Quayle used for lawyer-bashing.
Quayle argued that an excess of lawyers, lawsuits and damage awards handicaps the United States in world markets.
Asking whether America "really needs 70% of the world's lawyers," the vice president called for limits on punitive damages by which a civil defendant can be punished for outrageous conduct, and the implementation of "English rules," in which the losing side pays the winner's attorney's fees.
America certainly does need more teachers, doctors and engineers than it needs lawyers cooking up "shareholder" suits every time there is bad news in the Wall Street Journal. Lawyers generally deserve much of the criticism they receive. But Quayle's speech was ironic in some respects and hypocritical in others.
While he promotes "victim's rights" in criminal prosecutions, the vice president switches sides in civil cases. The horrors and sorrows caused by toxic waste, the Dalkon Shield, the Ford Pinto and the Sacramento River chemical spill illustrate the need for strong product liability and environmental laws. And laws are nothing, alas, without lawyers and courts to enforce them. Quayle's proposals would make it harder for those injured by unsafe products and practices to sue big business. The vice president's lawyer-bashing is, in reality, a disguised attack on the rights of consumers and the poor.