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Political Alignment and Philosophical Divide
By William Large, President, Florida Justice Reform Institute

William Large
A funny thing happened on the way to Republican governance in Florida. The trial lawyers came with them.

In 1992, Republicans gained a share of control of the Florida Senate, and by 1996, full control of both chambers. Until then, trial lawyers had been stalwart financial allies of the Democrats, giving only limited amounts to Republicans.

And the Republicans who came into power were stalwart allies of the business community. By 1999, the Florida Legislature had passed a comprehensive tort reform bill that capped punitive damages, narrowed joint and several liability and eliminated vicarious liability, among a host of other provisions.

Recognizing this shift in power, the trial bar needed a new strategy. They found it, not by removing support from Democrats, but by directing new political contributions to sympathetic candidates in competitive Republican primaries.

In districts where voter registration heavily favored Republicans, rendering the General Election (and therefore the Democrat candidate) inconsequential, the trial bar got to work defeating business-backed candidates with candidates who favored the trial bar.

These other Republicans were still “right” on conservative issues—pro-life, NRA endorsed, supportive of tax relief—with one exception: their unwavering loyalty to the trial bar.

The advent of term limits and effects of redistricting played into this new strategy. As new Republicans were elected, the trial bar doubled down and supported the new Republicans’ ascent, whether into leadership or across the hall into the Senate, or both.

Once in leadership, those Republicans leveraged their positions to recruit, fund and promote more like-minded, ostensibly conservative Republicans with increasingly closer ties to the trial bar.

Over the course of the past two decades, this slow but sure wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing strategy has served the trial bar well.

One legislator—who was known as a pragmatic, pro-life moderate in the House and had received recognition from the business community—won election to the Senate and became part of a new leadership group that favored the trial bar.

Another House member, an attorney who happened to be employed by a top personal injury firm and chaired the House Civil Justice Subcommittee, held two “Hurricane Irma insurance claims town halls” under her official legislative office. Her invited speakers were all trial lawyers.

In fact, after a mostly uninterrupted string of legislative victories, by the late 2010s, civil litigation reformers like me found themselves fighting off viable attempts to mandate prejudgment interest and repeal Florida’s nonjoinder statute.

But don’t take my word for it. The trial bar is more than proud to take credit. Take these excerpts from the November/December 2017 issue of the Florida Justice Association Journal:

“Our flagship bill – to require mandatory auto bodily injury liability insurance, get rid of the permanency threshold and the ten thousand dollar offset for PIP payments has already made major progress. It had only one committee assignment to get to the floor of the House…”
• “A few years ago almost any fast moving priority bill was guaranteed to be a bad one, and now it seems almost surrealistic to see one so favorable to the consumer being treated this way.”
• “It just has to be said again that this is not an accident or just good fortune. The arc of Florida politics bends long, and what we are seeing now is the direct result of wisdom, work, and wealth that was invested into the success of candidates who fundamentally believe in upholding the constitution and our rights to access the courts.”

In more recent years, the Legislature has increasingly turned to authorizing new causes of action as enforcement mechanisms for novel grievances.

Long-standing Republican principles of fostering market competition and innovation by reducing regulatory burdens have been replaced with a new agenda of regulation through litigation, under the guise of less government and more personal freedom. And that’s no accident—through no fault of our own.

William W. Large is a legal reform advocate and experienced attorney who led former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s fight to reform medical liability rules to cap damage awards. Large is president of the Florida Justice Reform Institute.