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Plaintiffs lawyers cut nearly $400,000 in checks to Gov. Gray Davis just as the governor was signing a few key bills that topped their legislative agenda for the year. From Sept. 1 to Oct. 19, state campaign finance records show, Davis received a big injection of money from consumer attorneys — nearly half of it on Sept. 5 and 6. A few days later, the Democratic governor signed a major piece of legislation that gave plaintiffs lawyers a significant advantage in summary judgment motions and extended the statute of limitations on civil filings. And Davis signed five of six bills aimed at reforming the private arbitration process. Despite the proximity of the contributions and Davis’ bill signing, trial lawyers who made contributions said their donations were in no way a quid pro quo. They contend the legislative session was not a slam-dunk for them, and that their primary concern was ensuring that Republican Bill Simon loses the Nov. 5 election. “Just because we put the money up, doesn’t mean he’s going to give us the signature,” said Frederick Schenk, a partner at San Diego-based Casey Gerry Reed & Schenk. Schenk said he is a personal friend of the governor’s who first met Davis when he was Gov. Jerry Brown’s chief of staff. He and his firm gave $50,000 to Davis on Sept. 13. “If I don’t support him, I really have only myself to blame [if he loses],” Schenk said. Records show a hefty infusion of trial lawyer cash — at least $74,000 — was reported Oct. 10, the same day Harvey Levine, a well-connected San Diego attorney, law professor and author, hosted a fund-raiser at his home that the governor attended. Levine said the party was “part of the continuing friendship and support that [Davis and I have] enjoyed over the years.” He said it was difficult to calculate exactly how much was raised at the event. According to Schenk, who helped organize the cocktail event, it was attended by about 50 people and lasted from about 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. Although Democrats from all professions were among the guests, Schenk said about three-quarters were trial attorneys. “[Davis'] message was not really a lawyer’s message,” Schenk said of the governor’s speech at the home. Davis mostly talked about education, the economy and other topics that would appeal to a range of constituents, Schenk said. “He did mention judicial appointments, which we were pleased to hear about,” Schenk added. But it was before he finished signing bills that Davis raised the bulk of his recent trial lawyer money. In September, he raised at least $269,000 from sources easily identifiable as trial lawyers, according to records. The bulk of that — $182,000 — was on Sept. 5 and 6. Jerry Paul, a partner at Berkeley-based Paul, Hanley & Harley, which does asbestos litigation, said he made his $25,000 contribution at a San Francisco fund-raiser Sept. 5 that he said was attended by lawyers and building trades types. “I did think, as much money as [Davis] had . . . the last two weeks it wouldn’t surprise me if he had to spend $10 million to $20 million,” Paul said. Davis has spent more than $50 million on his reelection bid, and one of his most loyal contributors to his effort has been the plaintiffs bar. Given their loyalty, the recent spate of giving shouldn’t raise any eyebrows, Schenk and others said. Schenk — who is also on the board of Consumer Attorneys of California, the plaintiffs bar’s lobbying group in Sacramento — said that although the plaintiffs bar scored some major points in the last legislative session, Davis did hand them a few significant defeats. Though he signed five of the six bills in the arbitration package, Davis vetoed the one piece of legislation that would have given consumers a choice in choosing a private arbitrator — even if the consumer entered into a contractual agreement to use a particular provider’s services. He also vetoed a bill that would have retooled the anti-SLAPP law that plaintiffs say has been co-opted by their opponents. Schenk said the vetoes prove that Davis doesn’t just look at his contributions list to decide policy. While trial lawyers themselves may have “blinders on” as advocates, “I admire someone who, whether we financially support him or not, considers legislation,” Schenk said. Bill Simon, on the other hand, wouldn’t even contemplate signing legislation if it was in any way associated with Consumer Attorneys, Schenk contends. Besides Schenk and Paul, top contributors since Sept. 1 include people associated with Cotchett, Pitre, Simon & McCarthy, who gave $81,000, and lawyers with Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein, who gave $31,000. Although they dismissed quid pro quo, both Paul and Schenk were straightforward in their support of Davis. Schenk said that after 16 years of Republicans, Davis brought needed balance to the top state office. Specifically, he likes the governor’s judicial picks, which he said were well-balanced. Paul said he would give Davis a “B+” as governor but that he wasn’t married to the guy; he’d start looking at other candidates if he “saw him signing things that were detrimental to my clientele.” “I know there’s been a lot of attacks on the governor,” Schenk said. “My view is that until there is some significant reforms . . . all the candidates are free to raise money and spend it as they see fit.”

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