Staging a Crisis

Today’s bouquet for the kind of cut-through-the-fog, no-nonsense language that always defines the best of journalism goes to the Quad-City Times of Davenport, Iowa.

But first, some background. President Bush arrives today in Madison County, Ill., to launch a high-profile campaign to limit jury awards in civil lawsuits, especially medical malpractice claims.

As the Los Angeles Times’ Warren Vieth writes, the president is pushing tort reform on three fronts:

Besides trying to cap damages in medical malpractice cases, he wants Congress to restrict the scope of class-action lawsuits and to take steps to curtail asbestos-related litigation. The White House contends that excessive damage awards have become an onerous burden for business and a drag on the U.S. economy.

As we reported here Monday, the president chose Madison County to unveil his plans because the southern Illinois jurisdiction and neighboring St. Clair County, Ill., have been designated by the American Tort Reform Association (a business group) as the nation’s worst judicial hellholes. In advance of today’s invitation-only meeting, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan told reporters “We have a broken medical liability system.”

This is about addressing some of the high costs of health care in American and reducing those costs, and also improving the quality of care and making sure health care is available to as many people as possible. …

And the part of Illinois — the region of Illinois that he’s traveling to, the Collinsville area, is an area that has been particularly hard hit by lawsuits. In fact, it was the — there’s a recent report that ranked Madison County the single best place in the country for trial lawyers to sue. There are doctors that are having to leave that area because they can’t afford to practice medicine and help patients — help their patients. There are doctors who are being forced to scale back their services. He’ll be talking to a neurosurgeon and be talking to an OB/GYN doctor about this issue.

That’s the take from the White House on the subject, and it’s certain the president’s media event today will generate a healthy dose of news coverage on this complex and contentious debate.

We’d highly recommend that the press entourage traveling with the president — and anybody else interested in the subject — check today’s editorial in the Quad-City Times. It offers another take on the topic:

President Bush couldn’t have picked a finer arena to incite a pointless showdown between lawyers and doctors. … Madison County is a perfect place to fuel anger.

Courts there have proven it’s a miserable place to resolve a problem.

Madison County, opines the paper, is a “largely impoverished county where jurors seem to show up with an ingrained attitude against multi-national corporations.” It is a county where “big-time lawsuits are generating cash for the county, not to mention members of the local bar. Just last month, the county received a $2 million windfall simply for holding bond money in a billion-dollar tobacco lawsuit.”

In Madison County, “the president could learn about the $8.5 million Illinois Supreme Court justice race that had all the decorum of a hockey brawl. The campaign centered around Madison County’s legal practices. A Madison County trial lawyer lost the race, but not before the campaign filed multi-million dollar defamation lawsuits in, you guessed it, Madison County.”

The president’s selection of the Madison County hellhole to demonstrate anything about American legal or medical reform is like holding a prayer breakfast at a strip club. Both would generate big headlines. Neither can change anything.

And as for a solution?

Fixing these outrages doesn’t require an act of Congress. The Illinois Supreme Court could crack heads tomorrow and get Madison County out of the billion-dollar litigation business.

Plain talk! No spin! Too much oxygen! It’s enough to give a reader accustomed to euphemism and obfuscation flushed cheeks and palpitations. Be still, our heart.

Susan Q. Stranahan

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Susan Q. Stranahan wrote for CJR.