If You Want to Sue Till Your Heart’s Content, Run for Texas Attorney General

Greg Abbott has sued the federal government 24 times during Obama administration, according to AP.
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Regardless of what you think of the merits of his lawsuits, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott is remarkably litigious. Abbott has sued the federal government 24 times since President Obama took office, spending over $2.8 million in taxpayer money to pursue the cases, according to the Associated Press.

And for all that money, his record of success in the courts is mixed, at best.

Many of those have resulted in defeats, including the recent high-profile lawsuits defending Texas’ strict law requiring voters to show picture ID at the polls and the new state-approved voting districts that a federal appeals court ruled were discriminatory toward minorities. Those two cases alone cost more than $2 million, according to records obtained by The Associated Press using the Freedom of Information Act.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said the costs are worth it, calling the litigation “a fight against the unprecedented ideology coming from the Obama administration.” In an interview, he said the legal battles he wages are meant to promote industry and protect Texas jobs.

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Texas has won five of Abbott’s 27 cases, lost eight and had two others dismissed because the regulations or laws being challenged were lifted or repealed by Congress. The other 12 are pending.

In all, Abbott’s federal cases have cost the state more than $2.8 million. That includes $1.5 million-plus in salaries for state employees working on the cases, nearly $250,000 in court costs and the travel expenses of attorney general’s office personnel, and roughly $1 million for outside counsel and expert witnesses.

Wanna guess how many times Abbott sued the Bush administration? Three.

Yet Abbott’s political career is largely built on making it harder for ordinary citizens to sue while he enjoys the personal and political benefits of the courts. Let’s take the wayback machine into the distant past, shall we?

When he ran for Attorney General in 2002, Abbott criticized his opponent, Kirk Watson, for being a “liberal plaintiff personal injury trial lawyer” and bragged about his rulings on the Texas Supreme Court that favored tort reform.

At the same time, he said that he was running to “protect the most vulnerable in society—children, the elderly, those who can’t fend for themselves.”

Abbott’s personal story would suggest that he’d be up to that task. One day in 1984, when Abbott was still in law school, he and a friend were jogging in Houston’s posh River Oaks neighborhood when a giant live oak tree fell on him, damaging his spinal cord and putting him in a wheelchair for life. It was one of those bolt-from-the-blue, life-altering tragedies that could happen to any one of us. “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”

Now, Abbott did what many folks would do: He sued the homeowner and a tree company and with the help of a plaintiff’s attorney won a legal bounty. His settlement, paid out over a lifetime, amounts to more than $10 million, tax-free. The tragedy, he has said, helped inspire him to get into politics… where he built a career on making it harder to sue. As a justice on the Texas Supreme Court, he signed onto opinions, for example, limiting non-economic damanges such as mental anguish.

As Texas Attorney General, he launched an effort to strike down the portion of the Americans with Disabilities Act requiring equal access to public buildings—something disability activists begged him not to do.

Abbott rarely discusses his settlement and the press rarely brings it up. But when trial lawyers made a stink about it in 2002, he reacted angrily. “Because I filed a claim of my own, should I forever be foreclosed from criticizing frivolous and abusive lawsuits?” he asked the Express-News.

Of course one man’s frivilous lawsuit, may be another one’s fight for justice.

Tort reform is more or less a dead issue in Texas. The tort reformers have won and the other side is too weak to mount much of a counter-offensive. But if you want to sue till your heart’s content, run for Attorney General.

Forrest Wilder, a native of Wimberley, Texas, is associate editor of the Observer. Forrest specializes in environmental reporting and runs the “Forrest for the Trees” blog. Forrest has appeared on Democracy Now!, The Rachel Maddow Show and numerous NPR stations. His work has been mentioned by The New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Yorker, Time magazine and many other state and national publications. Other than filing voluminous open records requests, Forrest enjoys fishing, kayaking, gardening and beer-league softball. He holds a bachelor's degree in anthropology from the University of Texas at Austin.