Another Oklahoma Disaster
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State’s High Court Strikes Down Comprehensive Tort Reform Law
‘Activist’ Justices Ignored Precedents & Severability, Disrespected Voters and Guaranteed Their State a ‘Judicial Hellholes’ Ranking
WASHINGTON, D.C., June 5, 2013 – Reacting to news that the Oklahoma Supreme Court has, by a vote of 7-2, struck down a comprehensive package of civil justice reforms enacted by overwhelming majorities of elected lawmakers and the governor in 2009, the American Tort Reform Association today criticized the court majority for “disrespecting both the legislators’ hard-won compromises and the will of voters who had endorsed the judgment of those legislators.” (The case in question is Douglas v. Cox Retirement Properties, Inc.)
ATRA president Tiger Joyce said, “Unfortunately for taxpayers, consumers, and those in need of accessible and affordable health care in Oklahoma, the Sooner State’s high court has taken it upon itself to usurp the prerogatives of the proper policy-making branches of government.
“Fortunately, Sen. Kyle Loveless and others are already preparing, in turn, to undo the court majority’s lawsuit-promoting opinion before it can do the kind of damage to the state’s economy that recent storms have done,” Joyce added. “Lawmakers plan to reenact the various elements of the Comprehensive Lawsuit Reform Act of 2009 as separate statutes, if that’s the ‘single subject’ game the court majority incredibly wants to play.”
Joyce explained that “By selectively reading one precedent and ignoring others, the majority opinion contends that various elements of the state’s civil justice system, particularly those elements that had been most routinely manipulated and exploited by the personal injury bar, do not constitute a ‘single subject,’” around which a section of the Oklahoma Constitution requires legislation to be centered.
But as the dissenting opinion, written by Justice James R. Winchester and joined by Justice Steven W. Taylor, points out, the state Supreme Court in Griffin v. Thomas (1922) specified that “The term ‘subject’. . . is to be given a broad and extended meaning, so as to allow the Legislature full scope to include in one act all matters having a logical or natural connection.”
The dissenters went on to say that, with respect to the Lawsuit Reform Act, “[T]he legislature and the public understood the common themes and purposes embodied in the legislation; it was tort reform. The vote in the House of Representatives was 86 in favor of the bill and 13 opposed. The Senate voted 42 in favor of the bill and 5 against it. Governor Brad Henry signed the bill.”
Joyce also noted that the high court majority “seemingly or perhaps willfully ignored the statute’s severability language, which invited justices to strike down particular elements of the bill, if they saw fit, without throwing out the whole thing. This makes the majority’s legislating from the bench that much more troubling.”
He concluded by saying, “Every Oklahoman who is tired of costly lawsuit abuse should feel insulted by the high court majority and its apparent willingness, on such specious constitutional grounds, to obstruct the will of the people. Lawmakers should act quickly next session to reverse this injustice, and the public should recall this decision and the activist inclinations of the majority justices when their names next appear on the retention ballot.”
The American Tort Reform Association, based in Washington, D.C., is the only national organization dedicated exclusively to tort and liability reform through public education and the enactment of legislation. Its members include nonprofit organizations and small and large companies, as well as trade, business and professional associations from the state and national level. The American Tort Reform Foundation is a sister organization dedicated primarily to research and public education.