Senator Paul Wellstone, the former Carleton College professor who represents Minnesota in the Senate, loves to portray himself as a champion of the poor -- particularly children from low-income and no-income households.
A member of the Senate Children and Families subcommittee, Wellstone often is referred to as "Saint Paul of St. Paul" by activists who praise his outspoken backing for additional spending on virtually every form of welfare benefits for needy kids.
And the boyish-looking 53-year-old has assiduously promoted that image by courting groups like the Children's Defense Fund, which, in turn, gives him a near-perfect voting record since his election in 1990. Such resounding support has helped make Wellstone the liberal-left's leading American icon.
But Wellstone's idealism apparently screeches to an abrupt halt at the point where the interests of the American Trial Lawyer's Association begin to speed down the entrance ramp of public policy. How else to explain his successful ram-rodding of an amendment through the Senate last week stripping a provision that would have forced tobacco companies to literally pay billions of dollars to advance the cause of children's health?
Wellstone's provision all but gutted a proposal by Senator Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., to limit the fees of plaintiffs' attorneys involved in the tobacco settlement to a mere $250 an hour up to an overall limit of $5 million per state. All of the leftover money -- billions of dollars by the most conservative estimates -- would have gone to pay for additional research on children's health.
The trial lawyers currently stand to pocket upwards of $100 billion - or nearly 30 percent $368.5 billion national liability tobacco company pay back generated by 15-cent-a-pack increases in cigarette taxes.
That may sound like a lot of moola, but the figure looms even larger when you consider it will end up the pockets of a relatively small number of lawyers.
Four -- count 'em, four -- lawyers who helped win an industry-wide settlement with the state of Florida earlier this year are demanding that they be paid $1.4 billion, or about 25 percent of the settlement's present value of $5 billion. Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth called that fee request "enough to choke a horse" and noted that a family four could live for a year "on 20 minutes of a trial lawyers' time.
Peter Angelos, the mega-millionaire trial lawyer who owns the Baltimore Orioles, reportedly will get $1 billion from the national tobacco pact, according to a deal he struck with the state of Maryland. Maryland's Medicare fund will get $3 billion.
The Minneapolis law firm of Robins, Kaplan, Miller and Ciresi -- the prime beneficiary of Wellstone's Senate maneuvering - is slated to receive a 25 percent share of any award going to Minnesota, a state with a much larger population than Maryland.
Peter Angelos should be on guard. Robins, Kaplan, Miller and Ciresi may have enough money to buy the Orioles lock, stock and barrel and move them to the Twin Cities -- perhaps, dispatching the sad-sack Twins to Fargo.
Senator Sessions, more than a little peeved by Wellstone's blind-side hit, warned that the trial attorneys' fees from this "jackpot justice" windfall could total billions of dollars. If a portion of that money was guided to medical research for children, he reasoned, it just might produce an end result as wonderful as the Salk polio vaccine. Sessions noted sadly that Wellstone's amendment now will exempt plaintiffs' lawyers in at least 40 states from the fee limit.
Wellstone told reporters he is concerned about the huge fees going into the coffers of the plaintiffs' bar, but said he is more worried about the tobacco industry's "attempts to shut down" the suit by Minnesota's attorney general Hubert Humphrey III. Wellstone, however, didn't explain why limiting trial lawyers to $250 an hour would derail the Minnesota lawsuit, which is expected to go to trial next January 19.
There's still time for Sen. Wellstone to take a stand for the principle he so often professes - that, all things being equal, the nation's kids should always come first.
Maybe it would help if he looked at it from this perspective: The billions of dollars earmarked for trial lawyers such as Robins, Kaplan, Miller and Ciresi could pay for early childhood vaccinations and Head Start-style nutrition programs for millions of underprivileged American children.
For the wealthy trial lawyers involved those bucks would just add another layer to already countless layers of unneeded wealth - new millions piled on top of old millions.
The American Trial Lawyers Association recently announced it will embark on a massive public relations campaign to improve the steadily deteriorating public image of its members. What better way than to urge its members to forego their obscenely excessive tobacco settlement fees and, in an unprecedented show of altruism, urge Wellstone to rethink his position and join Senator Sessions as an advocate of the interests of America's children.
The children of American would be grateful.
-Amy Moritz Ridenour is president of The National Center for Public Policy Research.
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