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Gov. Gray Davis tossed a raspberry in with the peaches he handed the plaintiffs bar this legislative session, announcing Tuesday he vetoed legislation that would have revised the state’s anti-SLAPP statute. The governor killed SB 789, which was carried by Sen. Sheila Kuehl, D-Los Angeles, and sponsored by Consumer Attorneys of California and the California Anti-SLAPP Project. The measure would have made California’s law prohibiting strategic lawsuits against public participation unavailable to certain categories of defendants — particularly those engaged in the sale or lease of goods or services with respect to specified commercial activity. Davis’ signature would have made it easier for lawyers to fight anti-SLAPP motions from corporations that claim their activities are protected commercial speech. “I am concerned � that this legislation unduly interferes with the court’s discretion,” Davis said in his veto message. “The First Amendment right to free speech should be carefully guarded and the court may be in the best position to ensure this right is protected by examining these claims on a case-by-case basis.” The veto came at the end of an otherwise successful session in Sacramento for the plaintiffs bar. Most significantly, attorneys won the extension of the statute of limitations on civil suits and a time advantage in summary judgment motions. But SB 789′s demise disappointed plaintiffs lawyers, who predict more big businesses will try to use the state’s anti-SLAPP law against the “little guys” it was designed to protect. “Unless the statute is fixed to clarify the original intent, that it was intended to apply to political speech and not commercial speech, then it’s going to be a disaster for consumers,” said Sharon Arkin, member of the governing board of Consumer Attorneys of California and a partner at Robinson, Calcagnie & Robinson in Newport Beach. Arkin’s firm is fighting several anti-SLAPP salvos fired by San Diego-based Metabolife International Inc. in suits brought on behalf of consumers who say the company failed to warn against the harmful effects of the stimulant ephedra. Metabolife has used anti-SLAPP motions to say its failure to warn is protected free speech. But the governor’s action was welcomed by a diverse contingent of interests that opposed the legislation. “I’m not saying there isn’t a problem for consumers in some of the ways anti-SLAPP can be used,” said Terry Francke, general counsel for the California First Amendment Coalition. “[But] I think they’re confined to delays, and that’s what curative legislation should focus on.” Francke’s group opposed the revision, saying it was too broad. It would have prohibited the anti-SLAPP motion from being used against plaintiffs acting as private attorneys general and in suits brought against entities over commercial speech. Although supporters might think they’re taking a shot at big business, Francke said the reform forgets that the little guy owns small businesses, too, and might need the anti-SLAPP law at some point. SB 789′s opponents included the American Civil Liberties Union, the Civil Justice Association of California and the Personal Insurance Federation of California. In other business that wrapped up the legislative season, Gov. Davis signed AB 3000, an omnibus budget bill. Among its provisions are 10 percent surcharges on some civil court fees and 20 percent surcharges on criminal fines, together designed to raise $60.8 million. The surcharges are in addition to filing fee increases approved with the passage of the court facilities bill. The charges in both measures sunset in 2007.

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