The Sierra Club and trial lawyers have a great deal more in common than many people realize. Both have a huge financial stake in seeing to it that legal reform fails. As a result, both also have the same political enemies.
This election cycle, the Sierra Club and the trial lawyers will spend millions of dollars to reward politicians who support their legislative agendas and punish those who don't. A review of Federal Election Commission reports filed by the Sierra Club and the Association of Trial Lawyers of America (ATLA) shows that the two groups have remarkably similar target lists:
Of the 26 U.S. Senate and House candidates who received direct contributions from the Sierra Club between January 1, 1997 and September 1 of this year, 88% also received contributions from ATLA. The correlation between the two groups' giving patterns for races in which both groups support challengers rather than incumbents is even greater. So far, ATLA has contributed to just three Senate candidates challenging incumbents: Jay Nixon, who is challenging Senator Christopher "Kit" Bond (R-MO), Charles Schumer, who is challenging Senator Al D'Amato (R-NY) and Michael Coles, who is challenging Georgia Senator Paul Coverdell (R-GA). All three of these challengers have also been endorsed by the Sierra Club. In addition, the Sierra Club has been running negative ads against Senators D'Amato and Lauch Faircloth (R- NC). Faircloth is being challenged by millionaire trial lawyer John Edwards.
The situation is similar in the House. The Sierra Club is backing three candidates challenging incumbents: Roxanne Qualls, who is challenging Representative Steve Chabot (R-OH), Tom Udall, who is challenging Representative Bill Redmond (R-NM), and
Eric P. Serna, who is also challenging Redmond. In addition, the Sierra Club has been running issue advertisements against Representative Rick White (R- WA), who is facing a tough rematch with former Representative Jay Inslee. ATLA has contributed to all four of these Democratic challengers.
The fact that the trial lawyers and the Sierra Club see eye to eye on so many congressional races shouldn't come as a great surprise, as the two groups have several interests in common. For one thing, both frequently use "junk science" as a means of winning both public opinion and lawsuits. Junk science - expert opinion that isn't backed up by solid science - has been used by the Sierra Club to support everything from Endangered Species Act lawsuits to public relations campaigns aimed at convincing Americans that global warming is underway. Trial lawyers have used junk science to convince juries to grant huge damage awards to their clients in scientifically-spurious cases dealing with everything from second-hand smoke to silicone breast implants.
A recent Supreme Court ruling giving judges greater power to keep junk science out of courtrooms was viewed as a major defeat for both environmentalists and trial lawyers. Noted Jeffrey White of the ATLA, "The court appears to be imposing an additional requirement, that there must be a direct link that connects the studies to the injury of the plaintiff...." No doubt about it: Being forced to prove harm in lawsuits is going to be a real inconvenience for trial lawyers and environmentalists alike.
The Sierra Club is also virtually a trial lawyer organization itself, employing lawyers of its own through its Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund (now called the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund). The group therefore has the same financial interests as the trial lawyers in seeing to it that such legal reforms as award caps, which limit the amount of money litigants can be awarded in liability suits, never see the light of day.
Each year, there are some 500 environmental lawsuits at the federal level alone. Litigation has become such a significant part of environmental policy, in fact, that it is now getting in the way of real environmental progress. For example, Superfund, a program ostensibly designed to clean up the nation's hazardous waste sites, has failed miserably largely due to excessive litigation. In the first 15 years the Superfund law has been on the books, just six percent of the 1,465 Superfund sites were cleaned up at a cost to the taxpayer of $14.9 billion. According to a Rand Corporation study, 32% of the total costs of Superfund clean-up - both government and private - went for legal and transaction costs.
For its part, the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund has profited handsomely from environmental litigation. The group collected $2.3 million in legal fees in 1990 and 1991 alone. The Sierra Club's involvement in the upcoming elections thus isn't just about advancing its green policies, but about making some greenbacks.
The Sierra Club and trial lawyers have joined forces this election year for the simple reason that they have a great many things in common. Perhaps the most significant of these things is the love of money.
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David A. Ridenour is Vice President of The National Center for Public Policy Research, a Washington, D.C. think tank, where he oversees the group's environmental programs. Comments may be sent to DRidenour@nationalcenter.org.
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