THE BLOG

The Secret Chamber of Commerce and its "Tort Reform" Mission

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

This week, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's "tort reform" branch, with its friendly sounding name Institute for Legal Reform, held its 10th Annual Legal Reform Summit. Among other things, ILR issued some easy-to-follow instructions for states seeking to wipe out the legal rights of people injured by corporate wrongdoing, as well as a "how to" guide to make sure that states appoint the right kind of judges, saying judicial selections shouldn't be "political." Well isn't that rich?

In 1998, the U.S. Chamber created the ILR to pursue the Chamber's so-called "tort reform" agenda: protecting corporations from liability, weakening the civil jury system and blocking the courthouse door for sick and injured Americans. Let's put aside the jaw-dropping hypocrisy of an organization that complains incessantly about lawsuits while suing the Yes Men for punking them, or complaining about climate change litigation (ILR had a whole panel on it) while threatening to sue the EPA.

The Chamber has a several-pronged approach in its campaign to eviscerate the public's right to take the country's more detested industries to court. One is to funnel major industry money into state election campaigns, especially races involving judges and state Attorneys General.

On September 11, 2001, a most unfortunate day for a major news story to appear, the Wall Street Journal ran an eye-opening article by Jim VandeHei about how some of this country's largest corporations were pouring millions of dollars into the Chamber, allowing companies to hide behind the Chamber's logo while the group did their dirty work. VandeHei wrote,

Last fall, for example, Wal-Mart Stores Inc., DaimlerChrysler AG, Home Depot Inc. and the American Council of Life Insurers all kicked in $1 million each for one of the chamber's special projects: a TV and direct-mail advertising campaign aimed at helping elect business-friendly judges.

Indeed, that year the Chamber raised over $5 million targeting judges in Michigan, Mississippi, Ohio, Indiana and Alabama who had, according to the Journal, "rendered verdicts against one or more of the companies contributing to the effort."

No wonder secrecy is a hallmark of the U.S. Chamber/ILR's strategy when getting involved in these electoral races. Indeed, the organization sometimes goes to great lengths to keep its involvement and funding a secret. The Huffington Post is definitely on the right track with its new "tip line" seeking to find out who is backing them. We're guessing Deborah Senn thinks so too.

In 2004, Senn, who was Washington State's insurance commissioner, ran for state Attorney General. She had been known as a pro-consumer commissioner, committed to protecting the rights of her state's policyholders. She was comfortably ahead in the polls but in September 2004, right before Washington's Democratic primary, a group called the Voters Education Committee (VEC) ran a series of nasty and expensive attack ads against her. The state's Public Disclosure Commission sought financial information about the VEC but was denied. It was only after the state filed a lawsuit that the truth came to light -- that the Chamber was VEC's sole contributor, spending $1.5 million on the anti-Senn ads. Senn won the primary despite the smears, but the damage had been done. After continuing PR attacks, she lost the general election.

The Chamber said that its activities constituted voter education and issue advocacy, not campaigning or political advocacy that can be regulated by election laws. However, the Washington State Public Disclosure Commission disagreed, finding that its ads impugned the character and record of Deborah Senn and thus was "express advocacy" -- not "issue advocacy." The Washington State Supreme Court agreed, telling the Chamber to reveal its donors.

Since then, the ILR has come under heavy criticism in a few other ways. Theodore Eisenberg, Professor of Law and Statistical Sciences at Cornell University, has just published a scathing attack on the integrity, validity and impact of the ILR's annual "ranking" of states, which is simply a survey of corporate lawyers many of whose clients have been taken to court for causing harm.

They have also created several "newspapers" around the country that present readers with biased, anti-victim accounts of cases and pro-"tort reform" commentary. Initially, the Chamber tried to hide that it created the papers to use, as the Washington Post wrote, "as a weapon in its multimillion-dollar campaign against lawyers who file those kinds of suits."

But all of this secrecy has to be expected. After all, think of their goal: to convince average Americans to give up their rights to go to court against reckless corporations and to make sure the insurance industry can keep a little more money in its pocket. That's what "tort reform" is. And that is some PR feat.