Despite the astoundingly positive news on the national economy, Louisiana continues to enjoy a narrow lead vis-a’-vis Puerto Rico in the race for worst performing state or territory. Almost every week we are ranked last or almost last in all states. But that is old news, I have warned about its impact dozens of times in my demands for reform, but our people chose to re-elect the personification of our fundamental problems in Governor Edwards and I must accept that.
Or maybe not. I have strong confidence that an independent legislature will finally pass pro-growth legislation and then have the intestinal fortitude to override the expected veto of a governor steeped in the political traditions that have been the source of our malaise.
The drumbeat of discontent is rumbling through our people. The classic political maxim that pocketbook issues override all else is making itself heard. The people are finally understanding that the decades old control of the legislature by lawyers, many well-intentioned, but equally as many concerned about their own pocketbook, has resulted in us suffering as a Judicial Hellhole. Now that fancy sounding word has been around awhile, but the people have not really paid attention. No one that is until they finally are understanding the connection between being a Judicial Hellhole and the extraordinarily high cost of auto insurance in Louisiana. It suddenly makes sense, its money gone from their pocket.
Without a doubt the trial lawyers, as they always have, will present a polished case that our tort structure is just as fair as other states, so it must be that we have worse roads or just worse drivers. That argument, coupled with the absolute dominance of the civil law committees in the legislature, has worked for years, but in truth that has only been because the people never made the connection between the law and their wallet. So suddenly the issue has life and only the governor, well lubricated with trial lawyer campaign contributions, will be able to stand between the people and lower rates.
But there is another substantial problem that comes from being a Judicial Hellhole. When a business decides on where it will move to, grow in, or even stay in it calculates its cost from a check list of many items. Prominent on that list is its confidence that it will operate in an area in which it will receive fair and impartial justice. Whether perceived or, as most business people will tell us, it is fact, civil justice in Louisiana is far more costly to businesses than in our competing states. And that is a factor that causes us to be unappealing to job and wage growth promoting business. As long as we are and have the reputation of being a Judicial Hellhole we are self-defeating. We sacrifice jobs and prosperity for the benefit of the Louisiana Legal Lottery that we allow to dominate our civil justice system. The few get fat, while the vast majority suffer.
There are two ways that this can be corrected, but both require a mea culpa, an admission that we have erred, in order to be effective. First is the much-discussed legislative approach. I feel that we will see strong legislation passed, but at the same time I expect a veto by a governor who long ago sold out to the trial lawyers. The only question then is will there be enough political courage to override his mis-guided veto.
The other approach is for the Louisiana Supreme Court and the Bar Association to use whatever authority they are granted to rein in the out-of-control litigation that dominates our state and causes businesses to flee. Though they have always had this power, the Supreme Court has never shown any interest in using it to create a justice system that is fairer to the citizens. Even if they choose not to act, they have a bully pulpit that would allow them to lead by defining reform-oriented legislation that would make our legal system the envy of the south. Why haven’t they done so? Well, I could speculate but suffice it to say that they have chosen to let the trial lawyers dominate the legislature.
The Louisiana Bar Association could also declare a passion for reform but like the Court they have forfeited the moral high ground to trial lawyers, who regularly promise on TV that some will “get rich quick”, by just remaining silent.
In the meantime, as noted by the Legislative Fiscal Office recently, our economy remains lethargic. And the clock keeps ticking to a time soon when our nation will slip into recession. As Senator Donahue pointed out in a letter to the Advocate, our state is dramatically under-performing during the strongest booming economy in history, so we will be devastated when recession ultimately descends upon us.
No, tort reform will not save us from the century old political folly that Governor Edwards defends, but it will be a start. Attempts to bring Louisiana in line with good economic policies date back to the Roemer Revolution of decades ago. But every time prosperity through a strong economy is brought up, it has been overwhelmed by a reversion to social populism championed by the likes of a self-serving governor and a weak legislature.
On the assumption that popular support will encourage the override of an expected veto, tort reform appears to be the low hanging fruit that may finally break the dam of resistance to change. For so many of us who are frustrated with the allure of the welfare state overcoming the logic of pro-growth prosperity the pocketbook issue of lower insurance rates may mark the beginning of great things to come.