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Analysis: Law, Like Politics, Makes Strange Bedfellows

It can be jarring for a political movement built around restraining the legal system to spawn a collection of officeholders eager to use the courts to get their way.

Gov. Perry and his lead attorney, Tony Buzbee, walk to Blackwell-Thurman Criminal Justice Center for his booking on Aug. 19, 2014.

Greg Abbott, the state’s attorney general and the Republican Party’s nominee to succeed Gov. Rick Perry, has famously described his job as, “I go into the office, I sue the federal government and I go home.”

Change the target, and that strategy could be straight out of Ralph Nader’s playbook — or the game plan of anyone trying to use the courts to change the way things work.

Taking a powerful foe to court is part of the American bedrock. But it can be jarring to a political movement built around restraining the legal system to spawn a collection of officeholders eager to use the courts to get their way.

Texas is suing the federal government over a variety of matters, including air quality, health care, banking regulation and money for education. School districts are suing the state. The governor has hired trial lawyers who specialize in civil law to defend him against criminal indictments in Travis County.

The groups that pushed to limit lawsuits against business apparently have no problem with all of this litigation. They are still contributing to those campaigns, still railing against the trial lawyers and still fighting for their cause.

Wars between lawyers and executives are not new, but the recent history hit a high mark with George W. Bush’s campaign for governor 20 years ago. The lawyer-bashing was cresting just as he did, a convergence that gave him one part of a four-pronged campaign platform (he proposed to “reform” civil justice, education, juvenile justice and welfare) and that served as a business attack on trial lawyers, who were disproportionately generous campaign donors to Democrats like Gov. Ann Richards, Bush’s opponent in 1994.

The reformers wanted to make it harder to file some civil lawsuits and to constrain practices that they thought had been abused or were unfair or that regularly put them at a disadvantage. The law was reworked to limit the liability of defendants when more than one party was responsible — or not responsible — in a lawsuit. Certain kinds of venue shopping — when lawyers try to steer cases to favorable courts or away from unfavorable ones — was restricted.

The list of civil justice legislation from Bush’s first session as governor was long, but the political message was clear: The proponents of change were trying to control civil lawsuits and the trial lawyers who filed them.

The civil justice lobby is still around, and still in possession of real political money and influence, through lobbying, candidate recruitment and political action committees. In many conservative circles, “trial lawyer” remains a slur.

While it does not have the punch it had when Bush took office, the sentiments behind it — especially the political rhetoric that came with the movement — are marbled into the Republican value system.

Part of the 2014 platform of the state Republican Party says: “We believe that a favorable business climate and strong economy emerges when government is limited by low taxation, sensible regulation and tort reform.”

A similar chestnut has long been a part of Perry’s stump speech (this quote is from a 2011 talk at the Iowa State Fair): “You don’t have to be a rocket scientist. You don’t have to have a Ph.D. in economics to understand that you have to keep the taxes low, have a regulatory climate that’s fair and predictable and you have a legal system that doesn’t allow for over-suing.”

That is the same Rick Perry who, in 2013, appointed Tony Buzbee, the kind of trial lawyer that makes the self-styled tort reformers grind their teeth, to the Texas A&M Board of Regents. Now Buzbee is captain of the governor’s criminal defense team — a move that leaves Perry’s supporters to cope with the cognitive dissonance of an ally teaming up with an avowed enemy. Perry, Abbott and their conservative peers have not dropped their support for the limits on lawsuits promoted by the civil justice crowd.

They also have not given up on civil lawsuits or on those mean old trial lawyers — when they need them.

Disclosure: Tony Buzbee has been a major donor to The Texas Tribune and the Texas A&M University System is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Texas Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here

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Politics State government Governor's Office Greg Abbott Rick Perry