First Amendment Rights of the Litigation Industry

When a Wall Street Journal opinion piece stated that “the plaintiffs bar is all but running the Senate[1],” Frederick Martin (“Fred”) Baron, former president of the litigation industry’s Association of Trial Lawyers of America (ATLA), reportedly quipped that “I really, strongly disagree with that. Particularly the ‘all but’.” Baron, affectionately known as “Robber Baron” for his aggressive advocacy for uninjured asbestos claimants and questionable deposition coaching tactics, was the ultimate Democratic party insider. He was the finance chair of John Edwards’ ill-fated presidential campaign, and the sugar daddy for Rielle Hunter, the mother of Edwards’ out-of-wedlock child. You cannot get more “inside” than that.

Robber Baron died in 2008, but his legacy is a reminder of the hypocrisy of those who decry the Citizens United[2] opinion, which held that corporations and unions have first amendment rights to speak in ways that might influence the outcomes of elections. While many fuss over “corporate” speech, the litigation industry has operated largely without constraint. Last year, for example, plaintiffs’ counsel, Edward F. Blizzard, and representatives of the litigation industry’s ATLA, now operating under the self-serving name, American Association for Justice (AAJ), met with Food and Drug Administration officials to influence agency policy on generic medication warnings. This week, the Times featured front-page coverage of how the litigation industry has co-opted the policies and agendas of the States’ attorneys general, and directed their targeting of corporations. See Eric Lipton, “Lawyers Create Big Paydays by Coaxing Attorneys General to Sue,” New York Times (Dec. 18, 2014).

The litigation industry makes its presence felt in many ways, sometimes as an omnipresent threat that influences business and professional judgments. President Obama criticized Sony’s decision to pull down The Interview, as an undue concession to terrorists. SeeSony’s Decision to Pull Movie Is a ‘Mistake,’ Obama Says.” Obama went so far as to express his wish that “they’d spoken to me first.” But would Obama, or anyone, have been able to control the litigation industry’s second-guessing of Sony’s or any individual theater owner’s decision to show the movie?

Lipton’s article is a vivid reminder that the plaintiffs’ trial bar remains the largest rent-seeking lobby in the United States.

[1] John Fund, “Have You Registered to Sue?” Wall Street Journal (Nov. 6, 2002).

[2] Citizens United v. Federal Election Comm’n, 558 U.S. 310 (2010).

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