Molly Ivins

Money on Tobacco Ride

One must admit, the tobacco settlement mess does have its amusing aspects. Finding a populist like moi defending a bunch of killer lawyers who got a $2.3 billion settlement is fairly funny. On the other hand, the forces of evil arrayed against our boys (as we like to think of these five killer lawyers) are even scarier.

If Governor George W. Bush had a lick of sense, right after the five killer lawyers won this state $17.3 billion (make that five killer lawyers and the hundreds of people they paid out of their pockets during the two years it took to win the case), the biggest settlement in history, he would have invited the five to the mansion in Austin and given a banquet in their honor. At which point they would have turned over maybe half their fee to the state out of sheer kindness – and a desire not to look like hopeless greedheads.

The reason I know this is not because any of the five killer lawyers told me; I got it from a memo prepared for Texans for Lawsuit Reform, the anti-trial-lawyer outfit so generously funded by Dr. James Leininger, the right-wing Croesus from San Antonio. The memo says, “We believe that when the tobacco settlement is announced, and the plaintiff’s firms receive their payment, they will attempt to deflect possible criticism by placing as much as one third of that amount in a special foundation. Exactly what the purpose of this foundation will be is not known, but properly done, it will be a good PR move.”


The second thing you want to remember is that this is a political fight as well as a clash between economic interests. Here’s the key: the five killer lawyers who stand to get $2.3 billion from the tobacco companies (or $3.3 billion over fifty to sixty years from the mediation effort, which is actually a lot less, in 1999 dollars, for reasons too complicated to explain) are all Democratic donors. The reason they’re Democratic donors is because the Republicans are owned by the big corporate interests that get sued by trial lawyers. Trial lawyers cost the big corporations a lot of money, so the corporate interests have banded together in Texans for Tort Reform and its offspring, to put trial lawyers out of business.

So far, the corporate money is winning. The “tort deform” passed by the Legislature in 1995 tilted the legal playing field, which had been pro-trial-lawyer in this state, way over in the other direction. Texans for Tort Reform has even more ambitious plans to make it almost impossible for anyone to sue a corporation. These folks accomplish this by contributing generously to state politicians. If the trial lawyers can contribute equally generously, the corporate tort deformers are stymied. That’s what this fight is about.

We in the public have a stake, because lawsuits are almost the only check left on corporate power in this country. These entities pollute our air, poison our water, break civil rights laws and worker safety laws, collude with one another to fix prices, sometimes make products that hurt or kill people, and otherwise behave in unspeakably conscienceless ways in their endless pursuit of higher profits. Because that is what they are organized to do – make higher profits. They are not organized to worry about health, safety, or the environment. I learned all this by reading The Wall Street Journal.

And the politicians, who are supposed to represent us, no longer do so because of this insane system of campaign financing that we let fester and rot and poison our whole political system. I learned that by watching the Legislature.

Since corporate money buys more and more clout in government, with the result that government regulates corporations less and less, the great American tradition of suing the bastards is almost the only way we have left to make corporations behave. To this end, we root for the trial lawyers, even when they’re in an ungodly fight over a $2.3 billion fee.

W. Bush, happy recipient of acres of corporate money, and his Attorney General John Cornyn, who got more than 20 percent of his campaign contributions directly from members of Texans for Tort Reform, are engaged in what is probably a bootless and expensive effort to get this big fee reduced so it won’t help Democrats.

When killer trial lawyers need a killer lawyer, they hire Michael Tigar. Tigar met the A.G.’s office in court recently, and the results were predictable; this Tigar is a man-eater. The A.G.’s lawyer actually argued that a federal judge wasn’t good enough to arbitrate the fee dispute and said it had to be settled by the Texas Supreme Court (whose members were elected with heavy cash donations from Texas for Tort Reform) on account of “the sovereignty of the state of Texas.” Tigar, an old civil rights lawyer, rose to announce that he hadn’t heard language like that since George Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door.

The stupidity of wasting taxpayers’ money on this political vendetta (although the state is theoretically being represented pro bono by Pete Schenkkan, who amazingly enough, also represents one of the offspring organizations of Texans for Lawsuit Reform) is that even if the state wins, it won’t do us taxpayers any good. Texas wouldn’t get any money if the lawyers’ fees were reduced; their fees come directly from the tobacco companies apart from the settlement. At least that’s what the trial lawyers and the tobacco companies both say. For the record, the A.G.’s office refused to comment.

Molly Ivins is a former Observer editor and a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Her latest book is You Got to Dance With Them What Brung You. You may write to her via e-mail at [email protected]

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Published at 12:00 am CST