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Street Talk: Lobbyist Opposes Tort Reform From the Right

Bill Clark/Roll Call
Lobbyist Andy Cochran hopes he can persuade tea party activists to oppose tort reform on the grounds that the government should not limit their freedom to sue for damages.

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Andy Cochran is a tea party-supporting, religious, anti-abortion, trial-lawyer-loving conservative Republican.

Seriously. Trial-lawyer-loving was no typo.

The Reagan-administration-appointee-turned-lobbyist has a long list of conservative credentials. Armed with writings from the Founding Fathers and a fervor for the Constitution, Cochran is reaching out to Hill Republicans, conservative scholars and tea party activists to try to persuade them to oppose tort reform efforts making their way through Congress.

Hell reference the Magna Carta and even the Bible when arguing for the right to sue and receive damages. Moses said, if you take your neighbors property, you owe, essentially, punitive damages, Cochran said.

He started, devoted to the Seventh Amendment, which defined the right to a jury trial for civil matters.

But Cochrans effort is about a lot more than his passion for the judicial system. His biggest client is the trial lawyers lobby, the American Association for Justice, which last year paid him $200,000 to help make the case with Cochrans fellow conservatives.

Were up against corporate America spending millions and millions and millions of dollars trying to promote a message that its wrong to seek redress, AAJ CEO Linda Lipsen said. And the more venues that we can get our message out, the better. Andy is appealing to a group that really cares about fairness and making sure everybody gets a fair shake.

Cochran said his website isnt about ginning up business or even solely to promote his clients interests. I want Americans to support the civil litigation process.

But he and the trial lawyers will have an uphill battle persuading Congressional Republicans, who have long supported legal reforms, to abandon such measures as the Lawsuit Abuse Reduction Act and a bill that would cap medical liability damages, the Help Efficient, Accessible, Low-cost, Timely Healthcare Act.

Cochran, a 1982 law graduate of Notre Dame University, said hes finding supporters.

Its resonating at the grass-roots level, he said. Its also resonating with Republican staff and Members.

He recently recapped on his blog an interview that Rep. John Duncan (R-Tenn.), an attorney, did on Christian broadcaster Terry Lowrys Whats Up show. Cochran quoted Duncan as saying, I have faith in the people I have faith in the jury system. Its one of the most important elements of our freedom, and it was so recognized in the Constitution, was felt to be so important, it was specifically put into the Constitution in the Seventh Amendment. And Ill tell you, its a very dangerous thing to take away rights like that from the people. Duncans office could not be reached to confirm the quotes.

On issues such as the lawsuit abuse and medical liability reform bills, Cochran has tapped his Rolodex of socially conservative groups that frequently push their causes through the court system. He wants to enlist them in the fight to preserve the Seventh Amendment on the grounds that the federal government could one day infringe on their ability to sue.

Mark Meckler, co-founder and national coordinator of the Tea Party Patriots, said the tort reform issue is not really on the radar right now. However, Meckler, an attorney who says he does not know Cochran and does not interact much with lobbyists, speculated that his groups membership might be sympathetic to Cochrans pitch.

Most folks in the tea party movement would say those things should be dealt with at the state level, Meckler said. Its not for the federal government to be adjusting the legal system of individual states.

But Rosario Palmieri, vice president of infrastructure, legal and regulatory policy at the National Association of Manufacturers, said even the staunchest states rights supporters and conservative Republicans can get behind the legal reform measures to stop frivolous lawsuits and to cap medical liability damages.

The manufacturers are lobbying for the two bills that Cochran and AAJ are fighting against.

Legal reform is one of those critical priorities to create jobs, Palmieri said. Sensible reforms need to be addressed in order to help us create more manufacturing jobs.

Cochran knows the jobs and economic message resonates with Republicans, but he is quick to retort that his clients dont carry the blame for the recent recession.

Trial lawyers and civil suits did not cause the major business disasters, the Wall Street crash, Enron, he said. Its mystifying to me how the Seventh Amendment has been forgotten. The Founding Fathers loved local juries, they loved local suits.

If you doubt Cochrans conservative bona fides, hell tell you, for example, that he opposes the Democrats health care reform law. How does he want to scratch it from the books? I want to kill it through lawsuits, he said.

Im going to stand on the high ground of the Seventh Amendment and the Constitution and invite someone to push me off, Cochran said. And Im not worried.

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