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Civil Law: The Fight That Never Ends

What started with a notebook full of proposed changes to civil law in Texas has become a permanent fight between seemingly permanent institutions.

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Maybe you’ve heard this one: A small town had only one lawyer and he was going broke, so it got another one. Both lawyers got rich.

That’s a reasonably good description of the relationship between the Texas Trial Lawyers Association and Texans for Lawsuit Reform.

“The Trials,” as TTLA is known, has been around for ages. The opposition has changed over the years, depending on what was going on in the overlapping worlds of commerce and law. People who sue and people who are sued, basically, are all represented by trade groups. TTLA on one side, and someone else — a Texas Chemical Council, or the old Texas Chamber of Commerce — representing business groups that want to protect themselves from lawsuits.

TLR came to Austin almost 20 years ago, delivering heavy three-ring binders to legislative offices and touting its positions on a series of legal issues. Its members argued that the state’s legal system was out of control — in favor of the plaintiffs — and that businesspeople had to limit the size of awards and throttle the conditions under which people could sue.

A short version of what happened: George W. Bush got elected governor in 1994 and in his first legislative session, watered-down versions of what TLR had initially proposed were passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor.

Mission accomplished, right?

The group still had some things to do, and to be fair, some of what it had hoped to accomplish hadn’t happened. It came back for more, several times over, and gradually became a lasting part of the special-interest tapestry of state government and politics.

It has taken over part of the job of the second lawyer in that joke: TLR, like TTLA on the other side, has become a force to be reckoned with. Each has a partisan lean, and each makes exceptions. TLR generally supports Republican candidates, with enough Democrats in the mix to call itself bipartisan. TTLA generally supports Democrats, with enough Republicans in the mix to have friends on both sides of the aisle.

The two groups and their satellites are crucially important to the financial fabric of Texas politics. Each spends more than either political party, and if you allow for some exceptions in top-of-the-ballot races, they are two of the most influential voices in state elections.

Successful organizations don’t seem to go away when their original goals are fulfilled. The March of Dimes didn’t disappear after polio was cured. And if the original idea for TLR was to change the law and go home, that’s clearly not the plan today. That’s not their favored comparison anyway.

“It’s more like polio is standing over there waiting to come back in,” Sherry Sylvester, a spokeswoman for the group, said of the Trials. The first thing was to change the laws to make it more difficult to pursue what TLR believes are inappropriate kinds of legal challenges. With that box checked off, it has gone into vigilance mode, fending off attempts to move those laws back in the other direction. And in fact, the foes have battled over dozens of bills in each session since TLR showed up.

Battling over civil law isn’t the only fight in the Legislature, and these aren’t the only two groups in the fight. But this is one of the permanent wars in Texas politics. It’s not just when the Legislature is in session every two years. Both play in elections. Each had — and has — experts working on redistricting maps, trying to gain an advantage that might help in coming legislative fights.

TLR started endorsing candidates before the maps were finalized. The Trials do it differently. The term “trial lawyer” can stick to a candidate the way food poisoning can stick to a restaurant. Most of the time, the support is quieter from that side, sometimes coming from individual lawyers, sometimes from affiliates — Texans for Insurance Reform is an example — that don’t have those two loaded little words in their name.

Too much money is at play for either faction to disappear. They might change their names, hide behind storefronts or even change the parties they tend to support.

Just don’t expect this particular fight to ever come to an end.

The Texas Trial Lawyers Association is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune.

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