President Bush yesterday issued an executive order directing all government agencies to take steps to reduce litigation.
The order was made to address "a legal system thats just spun out of control," he said.
Bushs directive requires federal agencies that file or defend against civil suits to adopt a "loser pays" rule in disputes with federal contractors, forcing the loser of the suit to pay part of the legal costs of the winner.
The aim is to reduce incentives for filing suits and to encourage alternative means for resolving them.
Bush wants to cut litigation. They should sue him for that!
The order, based on recommendations by Bushs Competitiveness Council chaired by Vice President Dan Quayle, also directs federal agencies to try to settle out of court more often.
The move was hailed yesterday by tort reform advocates and those seeking to stem the surge in law suits across the nation.
"I think it can make an enormous difference in area that has been pretty much going on automatic pilot," said Walter Olson, a senior fellow with the Manhattan Institute in New York and author of the Litigation Explosion.
He added: "There has been little interest in how government does its litigation."
But Pamela Gilbert, a staff attorney with the Washington, D.C.-based public interest group Congress Watch, criticized the move, saying Bushs action contained little substance.
"Its merely a warmed-over version of the Fortune 500 proposal to keep injured victims out of court," she said. "This looks like a meager attempt by Bush at domestic policy."
Quayle sparked a furor among lawyers when he recently said in a speech before the American Bar Association that the nation has too many lawyers and criticized excessive use of the courts to resolve disputes.
In addition to suggestions implemented in the presidents executive order, the Competitiveness Council has called for limitations on punitive damages, reducing "frivolous and protracted" prisoner litigation, and reforms in other areas that require legislation.
While not all of the groups recommendations can be achieved by presidential mandate, some of them can, such as Bushs directive yesterday to all U.S. agencies to reduce ambiguous legislation that leads to litigation.
"That part does scare us," says Congress Watchs Gilbert. "We think this is part of a practice that originated with Ronald Reagan to issue executive orders to agencies that had the effect of choking off safety regulations. This looks like a similar mandate from President Bush."
"If a regulation proposes a litigation hazard it will be delayed or watered down or such," said Gilbert. "Again its the business agenda theyve been pushing for decades."
She also finds the "loser pays" principle disturbing. To force the non-government party to a suit to consent to taking part under such rules, she notes, would require legislation, not merely an executive order.
The result is that that rule would probably only be applied in those cases where the government has an excellent chance of losing, since the private party is the one being given the choice.
This could definitely encourage the settling of disputes, she grants, but that "could be fiscally irresponsible."
Said Gilbert, "Government litigates a lot and often wins. This would say, Dont litigate, settle, and thats a very irresponsible position to take."
Olson disagreed. "It provides a sobering influence to federal litigators," he said. "The prospect of having to compensate the successful opponent is going to give the government incentive to withdraw from bad cases much earlier."
Olson says the U.S. tort relief system is regularly described as a "minefield". Unfortunately, the mine detectors dont work very well.
Olson granted that some parts of the executive order are little more than difficult-to-enforce suggestions and others, such as defining what is or is not an expert witness, "will need to be fleshed out."
Nevertheless, he strongly disagreed with Gilbert, who believes that the whole basis for the order — that litigiousness harms Americas ability to compete — is an "absurd premise offered by an administration with no solution."
Said Olson, "Leading foreign competitors do not typically describe their legal systems as minefields as our industry does."
"For those who time and again see half of (their awards) eaten up in legal fees, who see the legal system all too often only helping the legal machine itself, I dont think there will be much anguish over a well-reasoned effort to cut down on the waste and the destructiveness of litigation."
Read Michael Fumentos additional work on government.