Two Republican Leaders Step Back From Federal Tort Reform Agenda

Two important Republican leaders sent signs in the past week that they finally recognize that federal tort reform laws are an unconstitutional abridgement of the right to a civil jury trial and each state’s right to run their own civil justice systems.

Rep. Paul Ryan gave an important speech recently at the Hoover Institution on his suggestions for reforming health care. I was pleasantly surprised to see him step back from his previous proposals for federal tort reform. In his Hoover Institution speech, he didn’t mention limits on medical malpractice lawsuits or tort reform at all. Contrast this to Ryan’s “Path to Prosperity,” the basis of the House Republican budget resolution, which included caps on noneconomic damages from health care-related incidents. That proposal, the long-time centerpiece of the federal tort reform agenda, was condemned as “fair-weather federalism” by conservative legal experts, such as top anti-ObamaCare counsel Randy Barnett, and opposed even by two proponents of lawsuit limits, Walter Olson and Ted Frank.

Then former House Speaker and Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich released his new “21st Century Contract With America,” with pages of new ideas for consideration by Republican voters. Early in his discussion of his legislative proposals, he states that replacing ObamaCare requires “lawsuit reform to stop the frivolous lawsuits that drive up the cost of medicine,” repeating the myths perpetrated by medical groups to hide the cost of their own deadly errors and wasteful practices. But beyond that, he has no specific proposal, such as the unconstitutional “caps on noneconomic damages” cited by so many politicians. For Gingrich, who has been a longtime advocate of federal interference in state tort law, this is progress; it reduces the mention of “lawsuit reform” to the status of a throwaway line.

Too many wise conservatives who say they value the Constitution and Bill of Rights remain ignorant of the facts that (a) neither health care nor tort law are among the enumerated powers in the Constitution and (b) the Founders added the 7th and 10th Amendments as reinforcements against unlimited federal power. Maybe the silence of Rep. Ryan and Speaker Gingrich in their recent pronouncements are evidence that the facts are finally sinking in among Republican leaders out there on the campaign trail.