Ten years ago, notorious trial lawyer Dickie Scruggs, apparently frustrated with elected officials’ inaction on health care, decided to take matters into his own hands, filing class-action lawsuits against HMOs.
Reporting on the suits, Time magazine asked Scruggs whether the plaintiffs’ bar was trying to run America. His response, accompanied by laughter, was, “Somebody’s got to do it.”
Today, even though Scruggs is in jail, his manifest-destiny vision of private lawyers making public policy has become a troubling reality. To borrow a phrase from author and legal commentator Walter Olsen, trial lawyers have become “an unelected fourth branch of government.”
Plaintiffs’ lawyers, cloaking themselves in the veil of “public interest,” have earned billions from class-action and other private suits aimed at imposing new taxes or regulations. But these lawyers have found that bringing the same types of suits on behalf of public entities, instead of private individuals, is a far more effective and lucrative way to advance their policy agendas.
Scruggs certainly understood this. In the 1990s, he and a cadre of other lawyers sold their anti-tobacco litigation strategy, and their professional services, to state attorneys general on a contingency basis (i.e., fees paid only upon victory).
San Fransisco Examiner