Facts and common sense remain important to reasonable people, despite the recent fondness for media that simply confirms partisan division. We need honest debate because we have pressing problems to solve. And the only way to ensure the integrity of a debate is to insist that facts be placed in the center.
Unfortunately, this very desire for honest, fact based reporting is itself subverted by sophisticated political players with something to sell to reasonable people.
Lisa A. Rickard’s Sept. 24th Fox & Hounds column “California’s Not-So-Golden Legal Climate” is about a recent study conducted by a “non-partisan” polling firm. At first scent, this might seem like a promising source of factual material able to support the worrying conclusion that California’s legal system is terribly unfair to big business.
In fact, the Chamber’s survey is merely a self-serving opinion-poll of its own members’ attorneys. Cornell Law professor Theodore Eisenberg studied the biennial poll by the U.S. Chamber’s Institute for Legal Reform in a 2009 report and found it “substantively inaccurate and methodologically flawed.” This is like being surprised by a report that cats rank near bottom in a survey of desirable pets, then discovering that only mice were polled.
Ms. Rickard goes on to describe the horrors of California’s legal system, noting its Unfair Competition Law and Proposition 65, which apparently permit lawsuits against businesses where there is neither injury nor deception. These examples are wonderful for making the case, but for one small problem, they are not true – Proposition 64 corrected these issues in 2004. Facts can be such a nuisance when making an otherwise self-evident point.
The reality about California’s legal climate, according to the Judicial Council’s annual court statistics report, is that over the last decade, personal injury lawsuits plummeted by 33% while business litigation soared. Ms. Rickard acknowledges that businesses need the court system to resolve commercial disputes fairly and expeditiously. She only objects to suits brought by average Californians who stubbornly refuse to accept their injuries in silence for the sake of expeditious commerce.
The explicit threat, repeated like a mantra, is that businesses will take their ball and go home if California doesn’t stop being mean to them and doesn’t let them change the rules. But Ms. Rickard’s own column opens by explicating some of the joys of living in California, including our world-leading industries, and her own silly survey finds that 30% of corporate attorneys don’t think California’s legal climate was likely to impact important business decisions, such as expansion. California would be one of the world’s top ten economies if it were a separate nation, so perhaps we should question whether we need to sacrifice consumer rights to retain a few corporations that might prefer to be further from the ocean.
A more telling survey was conducted by the National Federation of Independent Businesses whose members were asked to rank the 75 biggest problems their businesses face. These small business owners placed lawsuits at number 71; that means 70 other problems plague their businesses before lawsuits even come to mind.
Consumer attorneys and corporations can agree, however, that the biggest threat to justice in California is the court funding shortfall. We can also agree that frivolous, drive-by lawsuits are deplorable. When funded sufficiently, California has a judiciary second to none that is more than capable of weeding out such frivolous lawsuits. Voters should keep this in mind heading into the November election.