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CONVENTION 2000 / THE DEMOCRATIC CONVENTION

Trial Lawyers Keep a Low Profile

The group, miffed over the choice of Lieberman and suffering from image problems, is still among the most generous and partisan.

August 17, 2000|MICHAEL A. HILTZIK and STEVE BERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

One of the most important unasked questions around the Staples Center this week may have been this one: Whatever happened to Bill Lerach?

Formerly one of the highest-profile Democratic donors, the San Diego trial attorney has lately been lying exceedingly low; he had no plans to attend this week's convention, his office reported.

Lerach's compatriots in the plaintiffs bar remain as important to the party as ever, if only because their loyalty and generosity is matched by few other Democratic constituencies. Yet there is an undercurrent of tension between the party and the lawyer lobby, whose members have been barely visible this week amid all the partying and posturing.

To start with, the trial lawyers--whose principal business is suing corporations, professionals or insurers on behalf of injured victims--are discontented with Vice President Al Gore's selection of Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman as his running mate.

Lieberman has favored tort reform, or limitations on jury awards in personal injury cases, and his home state is the unofficial headquarters of the insurance industry, the trial bar's archenemy. In anointing Lieberman, Gore passed over the trial bar's favorite son, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, whose huge victories in personal injury cases made him a multimillionaire.

Moreover, the party this week has not been showcasing its relationship with the plaintiffs bar as publicly as it has, say, with Hollywood royalty, trade unions or African Americans. Major plaintiff law firms were not listed among the hosts or honorees of this week's glitzy parties.

The closest the convention came to spotlighting the legal profession was an inspirational podium appearance Monday night by Dylan McDermott. The actor is not a lawyer but plays one on the TV show "The Practice."

Still, no matter how discontented the trial lawyers are, they are not diluting their support. The reason? In politics, there is no more bitter enemy of plaintiffs' lawyers than George W. Bush, the Republican presidential nominee who pushed through dramatic limits on punitive damages in Texas.

The Democrats' lack of public affection toward lawyers is not wholly surprising, given that the group as a whole ranks in popularity about as low as politicians (and journalists).

Consider what happened in California in 1996, when Lerach sponsored Proposition 211, which would have made it easier to bring shareholder lawsuits against corporations whose shares had suffered unexpected slides.

These were lawsuits Lerach had made a personal specialty, and the state's high-tech corporate leaders, who had been his frequent targets, mobilized themselves by turning the Proposition 211 campaign into a get-Bill-Lerach crusade. The technology industry ultimately won, after one of the most expensive proposition campaigns in state history.

As it happens, plenty of bad blood remains between California entrepreneurs and trial lawyers.

"We all saw the Lieberman nomination as a slap against the trial lawyers," said Sandy Robertson, a longtime Democratic supporter who is currently head of the high-tech investment firm Francisco Partners.

Nevertheless, plaintiffs' lawyers are among the most loyal big givers to the Democrats and the most partisan.

Through June 30, the plaintiffs bar has contributed nearly $6.5 million in unlimited "soft money" donations to the Democrats for this year's election and a risible $3,500 to the Republicans. Among contributions by political action committees, the Assn. of Trial Lawyers of America stands handily in first place, with $2.2 million, according to figures prepared by the Campaign Study Group of Virginia.

The Democrats have not exactly allowed this largess to go unrequited. Only last week, President Clinton served as the keynote speaker at the ATLA's annual convention. And Gore was the featured speaker in May at a fund-raising reception thrown by Santa Monica trial attorney Bruce Broillet that raised as much as $500,000 in soft money.

The party also has shown its gratitude by firmly backing the trial lawyers' most cherished positions. In fact, the issue of tort reform is one issue on which Gore and Bush stand in stark contrast.

Bush campaigned for Texas governor in part on a tort-reform platform, deriding the multimillion-dollar judgments juries had awarded plaintiffs in tobacco, medical malpractice and other high-profile cases. Blaming lawyers for profiteering, Bush pushed through state laws limiting punitive damages in some cases to twice the economic damages and placing even sharper caps on non-economic, or "pain and suffering," awards.

Because most personal injury lawyers earn fees calculated as a percentage of a final judgment, the Texas rules cut sharply into their livelihoods.

In any event, some attorneys say their relatively low profile at the convention should not be a surprise, because the issues dearest to their hearts are too abstract to rivet the public's attention.

Others dispute the notion that lawyers have faded into the background.

"We are here supporting the ticket," said Frederick Baron, president of the trial lawyers' association, as he surveyed the speechifying of the convention's opening day from the organization's sky box.

Times staff writers Elizabeth Shogren and P.J. Huffstutter contributed to this story.

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