In a speech delivered earlier this month, U.S. Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Tom Donohue called litigation "one of our most powerful tools for making sure that federal agencies follow the law and are held accountable."
But replace the words "federal agencies" with "negligent corporations," and the sentence would be unlikely to ever come out of Donohue's mouth. Especially considering that today is the Chamber's annual Legal Reform Summit - an event underwritten by its multinational corporate members that promotes undermining the civil justice system to weaken the basic legal protections of American workers and consumers.
The Chamber's hypocrisy - blocking justice for everyday Americans while using the courts liberally for its own pro-corporate agenda - is the subject of a new report released today by the American Association for Justice (AAJ). The report exposes the Chamber as one of the most aggressive litigators in Washington, entering lawsuits at a rate of twice weekly.
Rare is the case involving any kind of business issue that does not prompt a filing from the Chamber's litigation arm - be it litigating to force workers, instead of employers, to pay for their own safety equipment; opposing any move to combat climate change; or fighting on behalf of lead paint manufacturers, big tobacco and asbestos.
In the wake of the economic meltdown, consider the Chamber's role in opposing financial reforms. Since 1998 - beyond spending at least $380 million lobbying on behalf of Wall Street - the Chamber has entered litigation over and over in its effort to roll back financial reforms and defend the likes of corporate fraud poster children AIG and Enron.
It filed a brief defending former Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling before the Supreme Court in U.S. v. Skilling, arguing that enforcing the fraud laws under which Skilling had been convicted would deter legitimate business dealings. It also filed briefs seeking lower sentences for Merrill Lynch executives convicted in the Enron scandal.
And then there's AIG, the bailed-out insurance giant that gave nearly $25 million to the Chamber to start the Institute for Legal Reform (ILR), the very mission of which being to prevent the American public from holding negligent corporations accountable in court via "tort reform." In return for its hefty financial support, AIG received a lobbying and PR campaign pushing Wall Street's case - at the same time that AIG and its CEO Hank Greenberg were being investigated by numerous agencies on a variety of fraud charges.
AIG's current CEO sits among those of other insurance, oil and drug companies on ILR's 46-person board. These are the corporations that have the most to gain by blocking the legal system to the American public.
The Chamber also litigates against the regulators themselves. In 2005, it filed suit against the SEC to block a reform measure designed to protect the interests of consumers investing in mutual funds. Of course, after the financial meltdown, that push for deregulation was replaced, incredibly, by a demand that the government instead bailout corporations.
And even in this bailout, the Chamber lobbied to include provisions that gave complete immunity to those who committed fraud, protected executive golden parachutes, and deprived families from protecting their mortgages through bankruptcy. It then fought tirelessly against financial regulatory reform legislation, promising it would "continue to work vigorously through all available avenues - regulatory, legislation and legal" to block the legislation.
The Chamber's "one rule for corporations, another rule for everybody else" motto has come at the expense of our entire financial system, ill-treated workers and injured consumers.
Of course, the Chamber has every right to seek what it believes to be justice in a court of law, even if representing the most deplorable corporate interests. But it must be called out when it then spends millions of dollars to prevent Americans from holding wrongdoers accountable in the same courtrooms it uses aggressively to advance the agenda of its multinational corporate membership.
All should have access to the civil justice system. But this right to justice belongs to all Americans - not just to the Chamber and big business.
To see AAJ's report, "The Chamber Litigation Machine: How the Chamber Uses Lawsuits to Keep Americans Out of Court," visit www.justice.org/USChamber.