Today’s Tort Reform Debate Shows Why We Can’t Have Nice Things In The Governor’s Race

Today there was a gubernatorial forum put on by the Coalition For Common Sense and Louisiana Lawsuit Abuse Watch, in which David Vitter and Jay Dardenne answered a series of questions about tort reform. The two debate sponsors are very much in favor of the business community’s line on the necessity for legal reform in Louisiana; specifically, that the state ranks near the bottom in national surveys of its legal climate, that Louisiana has been termed a “judicial hellhole” for the lack of professionalism of some of its judges and the lack of ethics within its legal community, that this is one of the most litigious states in the country and that all of the above has resulted in a retardation of the state’s economic growth.

In short, this was a forum put on by a couple of groups adamantly opposed to the trial lawyers and their interests, and the questions asked reflected that.

And of the dozens of debates put on this year, this one was fairly typical. Lobby and interest groups have commonly invited the candidates to debates they’ve put on at which they’ll be put through the paces of just how friendly to those groups’ interests they are. If the candidates aren’t friendly to those interests, they often come up with something else better to do.

For example, today John Bel Edwards was nowhere to be found. This was not a surprise, as Edwards is no particular friend to the tort reform crowd. It would be a waste of his time to show up at this event and give answers to questions nobody in the room would find acceptable.

Scott Angelle skipped the forum as well, which was a bit interesting considering that Angelle had made a lot of noises along the lines of favoring tort reform at one point – but of late, word from the organizers had it that Angelle had changed his mind on some of the issues included in the forum. As the explanation went, Angelle is now making a play for campaign cash from the trial bar in order to reload his campaign coffers for the finish, and a strong stance in favor of tort reform wouldn’t help that effort.

But Dardenne and Vitter did attend, and for most of the hour it was a decent debate about several of the major questions within the tort reform realm. The legacy lawsuit issue occupied one, and the jury trial threshold was another. The question of plaintiff lawyers shopping for favorable venues and judges was a third; the tort reform crowd wants restrictions put on the ability to do that. There was an interesting discussion of whether there is a problem of corruption within the legal system when lawyers are bundling sizable sums of cash in judicial elections and essentially buying the judges.

In all of those questions, Vitter came down very firmly on the side of the business community and against the trial lawyers. He’s for dropping Louisiana’s jury trial threshold to zero, which is what it is in 36 other states, from the nation-leading $50,000 it is now; Dardenne wants to shrink it from $50,000 to $25,000, which would still be the highest in the country (Maryland is currently second with $15,000). The business community and tort reform advocates want to dump the threshold because, contrary to the expectation when it was first passed, it doesn’t discourage frivolous lawsuits. What is happening instead is that ambulance-chasing lawyers are rushing into courtrooms presided over by “favorite” judges and filing personal injury claims of $49,000, in the knowledge that insurance companies and other defendants will be under a lot more pressure to settle those cases knowing who the judge is than if they took their chances with a jury. This is giving rise to the “TV lawyers” all over the set hawking for clients with lines like “one call does it all” and so forth, and while it might make it easy for folks to get paid without actually suffering much in damage from a car wreck or a slip-and-fall at the grocery store, what it also does is contribute to sky-high rates for things like car insurance.

Vitter also had a harder line on legacy lawsuits than Dardenne, and he’s a lot more proactive on venue-shopping. Ditto for lawyers making big contributions in judicial races; Dardenne’s answer on that was actually to chide the media for not reporting who is giving what money to which candidate, which is actually a worthy point but not completely responsive to the issue of whether lawyers are buying judges with campaign contributions.

In other words, from the standpoint of the hosts Vitter clearly won the debate.

But then Dardenne, in his closing speech, diverted completely out of the tort reform pool and savaged Vitter as a liar for a TV ad the latter is running about a trip to Europe Dardenne took on his 60th birthday. The ad alleges it was a luxury vacation for Dardenne, his wife and some cronies on the state’s dime, an accusation which contains probably more flair than substance; Dardenne’s retort is that he paid for his wife’s travel and it was a working trip to promote Louisiana tourism that has paid off with increased European patronage of Louisiana’s hotels and restaurants.

On the facts Dardenne might well be correct, but what he offered came off as an over-passionate harangue described by one observer as a “meltdown,” and the room was largely filled with a lot of uncomfortable stares. Another observer summed up a good bit of the reaction as “Why did I have to be here for this? I came here to hear about tort reform.”

This came after Dardenne’s opening speech, in which he proffered another installment what seems to be a rather constant rebuke to Vitter for not showing up to debates as often as Dardenne does. Which is old and tired; if nothing else Dardenne has a job that not long ago was the subject of a rather loud public campaign in favor of elimination, while Vitter is a U.S. Senator. It’s not a surprise Vitter’s schedule might be a bit more restrictive.

But after the debate, Vitter was seen being asked by the Advocate’s Mark Ballard to defend the ad. And then as he was leaving to go to another campaign stop WAFB’s Kiran Chawla was seen chasing after him with a microphone to demand that he comment on “your 2007 incident.”

No questions about tort reform. Instead, hookers.

Vitter’s press secretary Luke Bolar caught Chawla after his boss escaped from her clutches, and asked her if she’d ever covered Louisiana politics before – because the hookers thing was litigated by the voters in 2010 and as it turns out people really didn’t care. She responded that the voters do care, to which he said he really doesn’t see a lot of evidence of it on the campaign trail.

Whether that’s correct or not, Vitter gave Chawla zero she could use in reporting on the forum, so unless she wants to run with “Vitter refuses to answer questions about hookers” for the 6-o’-clock news she completely blew an opportunity to get a sound bite from him. And if she does wants to run with “Vitter refuses to answer questions about hookers,” it will even more clearly point out something that was patently obvious from watching this entire show play out today – namely that for all the criticism of Vitter’s attack ads and nastiness and how he’s running an issueless campaign, it sure looks like those critics don’t have a lot of interest in allowing this race to be about issues.

WAFB had better not complain about how the issues are being ignored; their own reporter had a whole hour of substance with which to work in crafting a question or two for Vitter to discuss how insurance rates can come down while still giving people their day in court, or how the rules on legacy lawsuits can be structured to insure environmental damage can be cleaned up without running off the oil industry. Instead, she chased after him with a question about hookers that was never going to net her a usable answer.

While the Advocate’s report on the forum hasn’t come out yet, few we talked to among the attendees expected much of the substance to get any attention from Ballard given his questions to Vitter.

The point being, you had a whole hour of substance on something that directly affects the quality and cost of life in Louisiana which can absolutely be fixed through state policy, there was a legitimate difference of opinion, certainly in degree of commitment if not diametric opposition, and nothing of that substance will come out of the media’s coverage of that hour.

Dardenne wins, because by driving the forum off the rails with his harangue about the stupid European trip ad he obscured the fact he offered lukewarm support to the business community for their tort reform proposals while Vitter offered himself as a champion, and therefore lost the debate to Vitter in the eyes of the hosts. Nobody will know that, because he managed to steal the spotlight away and just call Vitter a liar for running that ad. Maybe Vitter deserves it, and maybe that’s just a product of Vitter’s own substanceless campaign ads. But Kiran Chawla didn’t chase him down to ask about judge-shopping, and Vitter’s campaign knows it.

Under such circumstances, the only thing to do is recognize that nobody wants a campaign on the issues and nobody will report on them. They want mudslinging.

So you sling mud.

Vitter has a relatively detailed 60-page plan for governing the state sitting at his website, and it’s a fairly comprehensive conservative vision for the state. But if all he’s going to get is questions about hookers and outrage from fellow candidates about how many debates he shows up to and how mean some of his campaign ads are, who can blame Vitter for going into the gutter?

That’s obviously the campaign the candidates want, and it’s obviously the campaign the media will cover. It might even be the campaign the voters want. So be it; we’re all going to be pigs in the slop.

Let’s just not bitch about all the oinking.



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