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Wall Street Journal

Sunshine for Lawyers
Florida tries to end a trial bar racket.
Updated Feb. 24, 2009 12:01 am ET

The relationship between trial lawyers and state Attorneys General has been one of the more lucrative rackets of the past decade. In the latest sign the tide may be turning, the Florida legislature is now considering a law, supported by Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum, that would limit the amount plaintiffs lawyers could take home when they piggyback on lawsuits brought by state prosecutors.

This unholy alliance was employed most famously in tobacco cases and copied in shakedowns from pharmaceuticals to insurance. AGs send jackpot cases to the trial attorneys, who turn around and kick some of their contingency-fee winnings back to the AGs in campaign contributions. By outsourcing the work, Attorneys General can file more cases, raising their political profile. The lawyers, meanwhile, wield the power of the state and its publicity machine to force companies to settle.

The Florida bill, which would cap attorneys fees at $50 million, would hardly consign lawyers to a life of penury. Outside counsel could receive contingency fees of 25% for the first $10 million, 20% of the next $5 million, 15% for the following $5 million and so on. We're guessing there are still attorneys willing to work at those rates. The bill would also require competitive bidding and make contracts transparent to voters by posting them on the Attorney General's Web site.

Florida hasn't been one of the abusers under Mr. McCollum's tenure, where his office says it has not retained any outside counsel since he was elected in 2006. But that hasn't stopped the state's plaintiffs attorneys from trying to kill his bill lest it quash their chances with future AGs.

Trial lawyers already helped kill the bill last year in the state Senate. But it's up for another try, and this week it passed a Florida House committee on a 4-3 vote after Mr. McCollum faced hostile questions. The three voting against the bill are (golly) trial lawyers by profession. Republican Kevin Ambler specializes in personal injury, wrongful death, federal tort claims, class actions, product liability and so on. Democrat Michael Scionti carries a similar portfolio of claims, while Adam Fetterman's father runs a personal injury law firm where the son once worked. As Tip O'Neill once said, all politics is local.

Republicans control the Florida legislature, and the Florida Justice Association, formerly known as the Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers, has spread its cash to the GOP in recent years. The St. Petersburg Times reported last year that the trial bar won several major victories in 2008, including a new legal basis for suing insurance companies -- a plaintiff favorite.

Legislation similar to the Florida bill has been on the march in other states where contingency fees have been a source of legal abuse. Colorado, Connecticut, Kansas and Minnesota, North Dakota, Texas and Virginia have all passed reforms governing the attorney general or the state's ability to retain personal injury lawyers. Among the laws are requirements for competitive bidding, limits on contingency fee contracts and increased transparency.

As former Virginia Attorney General Jerry Kilgore, who oversaw similar reforms in his state in 2002 puts it, "You need to make sure that the outside counsel works for the state, not the other way around."