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.
A more accurate and serious criticism of the civil legal system, not mentioned by Quayle, is the appalling inequality in access to justice for the poor during the 1980s, which saw record growth and skyrocketing salaries in large law firms.
According to the Public Interest Clearinghouse, a law school-affiliated resource center, the decade yielded these grim developments in legal-services programs that represent indigents in consumer fraud, evictions, Social Security and health benefits:
--Since 1980, the number of Californians in poverty has increased by 40%, while the number of lawyers serving them has decreased by 20%.
--In 1980, there was one legal services lawyer for every 5,727 poor people in the state; today there is one for every 10,074. For the general U.S. population, there is one lawyer for every 281 persons.
--Poor people, more than 15% of California's population, are served by fewer than one-half of 1% of the state's lawyers.
While many lawyers, including members of the Los Angeles County Bar Assn., donate considerable time and money to pro bono causes, a widening gap remains between the legal needs of, and the legal resources available to, the working poor, the disabled and the homeless.
White House policy since 1980 has caused this disgrace. To Quayle, corporations with battalions of barristers are "victims." He is indifferent to those without the means to secure their legal rights. The worst problem in the American legal system is not that we have too many lawyers, but that so few are available to the most needy among us. Quayle's anti-lawyer jokes are no laughing matter.