Erin Brockovich, drop dead

Enviromentalists and others are outraged, but a bill hobbling class action lawsuits, pushed by Bush and his corporate backers, is sailing through Congress.

Topics: Environment

The Erin Brockoviches of America may have a much tougher time going after polluters now that the Class Action Fairness Act is speeding through Congress toward President Bush’s desk.

The bill, a long-standing priority of the Bush administration and its corporate contributors, passed in the Senate on Thursday and is expected to sail through the House next week. It will move most major class-action lawsuits from state courts to federal courts, purportedly in an attempt to bring about order and fairness in America’s judicial system. Proponents of the bill claim that the current system allows plaintiffs’ attorneys to seek out local courts with agreeable track records on rulings and negotiate settlement awards for victims that are inconsistent from state to state.

Howls of protest are being heard from environmental activists, labor and civil rights groups, including the AFL-CIO and the NAACP, and a number of Democrats on the Judiciary Committee, including Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, who said during a hearing on the bill last week, “This isn’t the Class Action Fairness Act — this is the Class Action Moratorium Act.”

These critics claim the bill will make it too difficult for wronged citizens to have their day in court and see justice meted out. On Monday, the attorneys general of 15 states sent a letter [PDF] to the Senate leadership arguing that the bill would “result in far greater harm than good.” That same day, leaders of 16 large green organizations signed a separate letter letter [PDF] to the Senate warning of serious environmental harm that would come from the bill and requesting that environmental lawsuits be exempted.

Under current law, class-action suits that involve plaintiffs from multiple states (as most major class-action suits do) can be heard in any state in which the harm has taken place. Beth Levine, an aide to Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, who sponsored the bill, argues that this allows plaintiffs’ attorneys to do what’s called venue shopping: “They look for certain state courts that have been known to rule in their favor. The president often cites the courts in Madison County, [Ill.,] that continually rule in favor of the trial attorneys and dole out huge settlements.” (Well, technically, said courts tend to rule in favor of the plaintiffs, sometimes known as “victims,” but we get her drift.) Levine argues that the settlements frequently yield huge payoffs for the attorneys, but paltry coupons for the plaintiffs themselves. Large class-action cases should be heard before judges who have a more national outlook, she says, to help ensure fairer and more consistent awards.



Critics of the bill argue that in moving lawsuits from the state to the federal level, local concerns will be taken out of the hands of communities. “There is a reason that defendants want to be tried outside of the state,” said John Walke, an attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “They’re fearful that their wrongdoing will be punished more within the community because the people have more at stake. [Proponents of the bill] term it ‘local prejudice,’ but it’s really ‘local care.’”

Worse still, say the bill’s opponents, federal courts often refuse to hear class-action cases submitted by petitioners from multiple states. “No one wants to file a class-action suit at a federal level because they often get dismissed if they include plaintiffs from a patchwork of different states, all of which have different laws,” explained Jude McCartin, an aide to Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., who has been a vocal critic of certain sections of the bill. “There isn’t one state law that is applicable, and there is no guidance for federal judges as to where they can apply just one state’s laws.”

Bingaman tried to address this concern by proposing an amendment that would give federal judges the authority to select one state’s law and apply it to a case with plaintiffs from multiple states, but he couldn’t rally enough votes for it. “We tried to say [in this amendment] that if class-action suits are going to be forced into federal courts, let’s give consumers reasonable expectation that their case will be heard,” McCartin told Muckraker. “But the support just wasn’t there for it.”

And even if the cases do get heard, the Class Action Fairness Act could result in substantial cost increases and time delays for plaintiffs. Federal courts are already backlogged, critics say, and new cases bumped up to the federal level will have to go to the end of a long waiting list.

“Going through the federal system is far less expedient,” said Joan Mulhern, a senior attorney at Earthjustice. “If you’re a community that’s suffering from groundwater contamination or an oil spill or a tank explosion or air contamination from nearby factory farms, you may have to wait for years to even get your case heard, much less be given a fair chance from an unbiased judge to have your injuries redressed.”

Mulhern argues that the Bush administration is rigging the judicial system so it’s harder for citizens to hold corporate culprits accountable on the full gamut of civil concerns — not just environment and public health, but also consumer protection, civil rights and labor issues. “It’s that sweeping,” she said.

Enviros are particularly concerned about how the bill will affect lawsuits over water pollution from MTBE, a gasoline additive that has contaminated the groundwater in at least 35 states. Hundreds of communities across the country are grappling with the effects of MTBE pollution, and many of them have been banding together to organize major class-action suits — suits that will be passed off to federal courts as soon as the bill is signed into law.

The bill also worries environmentalists and other public advocates because it will hand more power to an increasingly conservative federal judiciary. President Bush has made it a high priority to appoint conservative judges to federal courts, as did Ronald Reagan, and they have left a lasting legacy: Of the 836 total active federal judges, 204 have been appointed by Bush, and 253 were appointed by former Republican presidents going back to Richard Nixon. In total, 55 percent are Republican appointees, according to the Alliance for Justice. And Bush has signaled his intent to aggressively push through more right-wing appointees to the federal bench.

At a time when the White House is weakening environmental defenses across the board, the Class Action Fairness Act would remove yet another avenue for citizens to keep corporate polluters in check, according to Ed Hopkins, director of environmental quality for the Sierra Club. “You’ve got the executive branch and Congress clearly aligned against strong environmental protections. So what branch of government can citizens turn to? That’s the courts. The courts are really the final frontier. And now even they are being taken away from the American people.”

Amanda Griscom Little is a columnist for Grist Magazine. Her articles on energy, technology and the environment have appeared in publications ranging from Rolling Stone to the New York Times Magazine.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>