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The Fort Worth Star Telegram - Uncivil and Lacking in Class

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The Fort Worth Star Telegram - Uncivil and Lacking in Class

Uncivil and lacking in class

By Joseph R. Biden Jr.

It sounds like the script of a Hollywood movie: Powerful tobacco, drug and chemical companies team up to spend more than $100 million on an anti-consumer campaign that will effectively diminish the legal rights of American families.

If this were a film, the good guys would win, and the mega-firms responsible for harming the public would pay. But unfortunately, this isn't a John Grisham thriller -- it is real life. And thanks to a bill passed by Congress on Thursday, it will be harder than ever for this story to have a happy ending.

The "Class Action Fairness Act," a cynically misnamed bill signed into action Friday, will now make it tougher for consumers, workers, homeowners and shareholders to bring class action lawsuits against giant corporations that have committed fraud.

A vast array of constituencies -- from consumer, civil rights and environmental groups to the state courts, legislatures and attorneys general -- and even the federal courts have all lined up against this bill, all with good reason.

The history of American jurisprudence, and before that English law, demonstrates that class action lawsuits exist because they provide a strong disincentive for bad guys to harm innocent people.

The vast majority of companies are good corporate citizens and contribute mightily to America's wealth and well-being. But, regrettably, some corporations knowingly defraud consumers and put profits ahead of people.

The government needs to do its part to protect consumers, but attorneys general couldn't possibly pursue every case in which a company has hurt someone.

Class action lawsuits deputize the legal profession to serve in place of the attorneys general as an advocate for consumer protection. They hold manufacturers, distributors and corporations accountable for their actions and give individuals a way to fight for their rights and safety.

Class actions also permit individuals to join forces in order to go after a large defendant cheating many people.

An average American cannot afford the $100,000 in legal fees necessary to pursue a lawsuit over tainted drinking water. If, however, an individual bands together with neighbors who have been cheated by the same defendant, the result will force the offending corporation to stop cheating people and fix the problem. That is what class actions are about: economies of scale bringing wrongdoers to justice.

In 2003, with the sins of Enron splashed across the front pages of every paper in the country, Congress and the White House came together to pass laws cracking down on corporate criminals.

But as the memory of that case and similar scandals begins to fade, Bush administration officials are attempting to tilt the playing field of tort law back to big business.

By limiting jury verdicts in medical malpractice cases; by immunizing manufacturers from lawsuits by asbestos victims; by weakening the high standards we only recently set for corporate ethics and accountability; and by constricting the ability to bring class actions on behalf of victims of corporate wrongdoing, they are trying to make it harder for the average American to seek justice.

Conservative pundit Grover Norquist has conceded that this legislative scheme "rewards the business community, the Fortune 500 guys who have been increasingly supportive of the broad center-right coalition." This isn't about policy. This is about political payback for big business.

Until we are ready to increase the number of government-backed prosecutors nationwide, there remains a real need for the fair class action system that has been in place.

To protect drivers from getting gouged at the pump, to protect workers from exposure to harmful chemicals and to protect retirees from having their retirement savings drained, class action litigation is a valuable and much-needed tool that has sparked a number of beneficial reforms.

Is the system perfect?

No. But we don't need a sledgehammer to crack an egg. And we don't need to make it harder for the little guy to take on corporate wrongdoers to reform our judicial system.

As the old saying goes, "A right without remedy is no right at all." No one truly has a legal right unless a court is willing to protect it.

To go back on that principle and reverse hundreds of years of legal protection for average citizens is not just unfair. It is un-American.

U.S. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., D-Del., is senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

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