Democrats May Block Class Action Bill

Published on

The New York Times

WASHINGTON (AP) — Despite majority support for changing the way America sues, Democrats say they have enough votes in the Senate to block Republicans from moving class action lawsuits out of state court and into the federal system.

The Senate is the last stumbling block for the legislation, with President Bush, the GOP-controlled House, Senate Republicans and some Senate Democrats already on board.

But most of the 48 Senate Democrats oppose the legislation to place all national class action lawsuits into the federal system, enough to filibuster if necessary, Democratic leaders say.

When asked recently if Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., had enough votes to break a filibuster, Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota said: “I don’t think so.”

Supporters are still looking for those elusive votes. By some estimates, the bill has at least 57 backers. It takes 60 votes to break a filibuster in the Senate, which has 51 Republicans, 48 Democrats and one independent senator, Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont.

Republicans decided to force a Wednesday confrontation on the legislation to see if Democrats are serious about filibustering the bill.

Under both the House and Senate versions of the bill, class-action lawsuits in which the primary defendant and more than one-third of the plaintiffs are from the same state would still be heard in state court. But if less than one-third of the plaintiffs are from the same state as the primary defendant, the case would go to federal court.

The House version would apply to all lawsuits, including ones being argued in court now, but the Senate version is not retroactive. It also would apply only to class action lawsuits and not to similar actions, including lawsuits consolidated into one case or state attorney general actions.

Sen. John Breaux, D-La., wants to the bill changed to remove the business being sued from the equation. Under his proposal, if more than two-thirds of the plantiffs live in the state where the lawsuit is filed, it stays in state court. If fewer than a third are from the same state, the case is moved to federal court. For all other lawsuits, a federal judge would decide where to send the lawsuit.

“If the injured people are in my state, two-thirds or more, I think logic says that the case can best be handled by the state courts or the state Supreme Court who would be interpreting the state tort law that the state legislature passed,” Breaux said Monday.

Opponents of the legislation call it corporate welfare to help out big businesses that abuse the public. Federal courts are assumed to be less likely to issue multimillion-dollar verdicts against big corporations. Democrats also say the bill was meant hurt to trial lawyers, a perennial Republican target.

The federal courts already are overwhelmed with cases, which means that class action lawsuits would receive the lowest priority, said Jamie Court, executive director of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights.

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