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Charting our course.

As I begin my term of office and try to assess the needs of our organization, a look back over the tumultuous events of the past several years is in order to gain focus and direction toward developing a plan for the future. All things considered, I've come to the conclusion that ATLA's cup is much closer to being half full rather than half empty. Let me explain.

It is absolutely remarkable, when you think about it, how our organization, and trial lawyers generally, have not only survived the last six years since the now infamous Contract with America was consecrated, but how we have flourished. Tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars have been spent over these past years by those whose principal mission is to destroy the civil justice system, not just by publicizing half-truths about how the system operates but by actually trying to purchase protection from those charged with writing laws for the betterment of our society. Yet, incredibly, their efforts have been virtually unsuccessful at the federal level.

Do you ever wonder how much money has been spent by the insurance industry on lobbyists and publicists hired to secure enactment of a preemptive no-fault auto law in the Congress over the last 20 years? It's probably more than the annual federal budget for research on cancer. The fact that for over two decades no state has adopted this abusive scheme of robbing victims of their rights, and that the National Auto Choice Bill has not been favorably voted out of any congressional committee, speaks volumes about the success of ATLA's efforts to mobilize a powerful offensive on behalf of consumers.

Moreover, the badly misnamed Common Sense Product Liability Legal Reform Act that President Clinton vetoed in 1996 has never been resurrected in either chamber of the Congress.

And even in states where lawmaking bodies have succumbed to the well-funded campaigns of those who seek protection from accountability, courts have repeatedly upheld the constitutional rights of those who seek full access to justice. This past year, ATLA's staff lawyers, teamed with skilled advocates from the Ohio Academy of Trial Lawyers, successfully toppled one of the most oppressive, antivictim laws ever enacted. This victory, following in the footsteps of similar successful challenges in states like Illinois and Indiana, has proven that when properly attacked by lawyers well armed and versed in constitutional law, even the most formidable statutory restrictions will fail.

Even the image of lawyers has begun to improve. Stories about the important contributions trial lawyers make toward improving our society are finally breaking through the wall of disinformation spread by our adversaries. Whether through blockbuster movies such as The Insider, A Civil Action, and Erin Brockovich, or through the recent popular novels by authors such as John Grisham and Scott Turow, more and more people react strongly to attempts to limit their individual rights, and are truly captivated by the image of hardworking trial lawyers who risk everything to ensure their justice.

One need only look at the recent referendum in Oregon to detect a shift in public opinion. Faced with an insurance-industry-funded public referendum to reverse the effects of an Oregon Supreme Court decision striking down caps on personal injury damages, state voters overwhelmingly refused to take the decision-making process from juries.

For the first time in memory, even in the Congress, laws that have restricted recovery for serious injury or death are beginning to crumble. For decades, wrongful death survivors of aviation-disaster victims have been restricted in their ability to seek full recovery if the airplane crashed outside the territorial waters of a coastal state. This Congress, this year, sent to the president, who in turn signed into law, an amendment to the Death on the High Seas Act that will now permit recovery of noneconomic damages in aviation disasters outside U.S. waters. Indeed, as I write this column, there is hope that a "patients' bill of rights," which will end years of immunity from suits granted to HMOs, will finally reach President Clinton's desk.

What does all this mean for those of us charged with charting ATLA's course for the future? In my mind, it means at least five things:

* We must remain vigilant and continue our aggressive position of advocating for the rights of victims and consumers in the halls of state and federal legislatures;

* We must bolster our ability to challenge restrictive laws in the courts;

* We must work to enhance the image of lawyers in the minds of the public;

* We must strengthen our organization internally by increasing our membership and offering more relevant and technologically updated services;

* And, we must never forget the hard work and sacrifice of our previous leaders, who have brought us from the edge of the precipice to where we are today.

As your president, I give you my complete commitment to work with your ATLA leadership to achieve these goals. Thanks for giving me this opportunity to make "lawyering for the people" a more deeply satisfying profession than ever before.

With gratitude and a high level of optimism and energy,
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Author:Baron, Fred
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2000
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