Sometimes I think I made Warren Chisum up for my own amusement.
Brother Chisum, the Bible-thumper from Pampa and chairman of the Legislature's conservative caucus, is opposing a bill to require that caucuses report who gives them money and how the money is spent, even though last session, he headed the committee that recommended the same law. State Rep. Chisum says some of the people who have contributed to his caucus don't want it known.
"We will never disclose those. Everybody else, we are happy to disclose." Thank you, Brother Chisum.
One of the recurring features of covering the Texas Legislature is the desire to keep saying, "Excuse me, I think I have a banana in my ear. Do what?"
Chisum often induces this reaction. One of his better bills this session would prohibit state agencies from considering the environment when choosing fuel. (Take the banana out of your ear. It helps.) Yes, Chisum believes that considering the environment should be prohibited by law. If the environment should happen to cross your mind while you are trying to decide between leaded, unleaded, diesel or gasohol, severe legal penalties would ensue.
The phrase "the common good" is not in Chisum's working vocabulary. He is, however, hellbent on making sex education about abstinence. He has introduced a five-part bill that would require any course in human sexuality to: 1. present abstinence; 2. devote substantially more attention to abstinence from sexual activity than to any other behavior; 3. emphasize abstinence; 4. direct adolescents to abstinence; and 5. teach contraception and condom use in terms of human-use reality rates instead of theoretical laboratory rates. (Just take the banana out of your ear.)
Chisum has quite an interest in matters sexual. Last session, he managed to get homosexual sodomy reinstated in the Texas penal code even though all the district attorneys had agreed it was a useless law. Chisum also invests in the insurance policies of people with AIDS, buying them at 50 percent of value and then waiting for the AIDS victim to die; the earlier the death, the higher his profit. He says it's a great investment. He also says he stands for Christian values.
One month into the 74th session, we're clearly looking at a Bob-Bullock-driven session. (Surprise! Not.) On the other hand, the House can become a sort of Russian winter for advancing legislation; entire armies have disappeared in there. Some friends of the lieutenant governor are contemplating a Democratic intervention on his behalf; the plan is to sit him down and make him say aloud, "My name is Bob, and I am a Democrat."
Because Governor George W. Bush is so enthusiastic about tort reform, and because the Senate lost perhaps its greatest trial lawyer champion when Senator Carl Parker of Beaumont was defeated, tort reform looks as though it will go through the Senate like a pig on ice. (Parker says he doesn't regret running again because if he had quit, someone decent would have been elected and no one would have missed him. As it is, his replacement is making him look like a cross between Einstein and Jesus.)
"Tort reform" is one of those euphemisms like "right to life" that is so misleading it should be banned under deceptive trade practices legislation.
What tort reform really means is a way for insurance companies to gouge more.
Bidness will tell you that tort reform is a way to stop "these outrageous lawsuits." Listen, the outrageous jury awards we read about are almost always overturned on appeal. The system works fine. Tort reform is also touted as a way to stop "sleazy lawyers."
I personally wouldn't defend trial lawyers as a group if you paid me--or defense lawyers--but I'm not fool enough to believe Bubba Joe can sue Exxon with a hope in hell of winning without a good trial lawyer. And Bubba Joe can't pay no trial lawyer up front. If we get any more "tort reform" in this state, you can kiss your rights goodbye.
Another great tactic of the tort "reformers" is the tried-and-true "confuse 'em to death" strategy. Somebody tells you, "Joint and several liability is a disgrace to the civilized world," and all you can say is "Uh."
Joint and several liability is a legal doctrine that applies when there's more than one defendant in a tort case. The jury finds against all of 'em, and they have to work it out amongst themselves who will pay how much. Who would know better than they would who is how much guilty?
Usually the guy with the most money pays most, which means the richies are really mad about this. The trial lawyers say joint and several is "a way of killin' 'em all and lettin' God sort it out." Sometimes a jury is called upon to decide who is how much to blame, but that's rare.
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Sure, the present tort system is abused. We're always readin' about some chiseler who slipped on the mud that God put in front of him and then decides to sue Megabucks, Inc. for his own carelessness. But you'd be surprised how sensible a jury of your peers can be. Which lawyers know.
Which is one reason why fewer than two percent of commercial liability claims go to court; the rest are settled. The numbers just don't support this big ballyhoo for tort reform. Punitive damage claims are declining, the percentage of cases in which punitive damages are actually paid is down by 50 percent, and as usual, people are being killed and seriously injured in Texas at an unholy rate.
Listen to these same big bidness types who whine about the tort system whine about how awful the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is, and you'll get a better sense of what's really going on here.
Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Copyright 1995 Creators Syndicate, Inc.