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My vote for outstanding contributor to legal reform in 2002 goes to New York Supreme Court Justice Charles Ramos. One can only imagine how Ramos must have rocked the contingent-fee bar when he, sua sponte, ordered the attorneys who represented New York in the 46-state tobacco Master Settlement Agreement to show cause why their $625 million fee award was not excessive or unethical. According to a press account, the hearing to show cause was “unparalleled — for its vitriol, much of it aimed at the judge” who called the $625 million fee “offensive” and equated it to a rate of roughly $13,000 an hour. Probably even more stunning was Ramos’ 52-page decision enjoining any further fee payments. So far, some $12 billion in legal fees have been awarded to outside counsel for nearly 20 states in the master tobacco settlement — most of them represented by the same counsel that represented New York. Relying on legal ethics and common sense, Ramos did what is critically needed in our civil litigation system and all that most legal reformists ask, indeed hope for — he inquired. How could New York’s private attorneys be awarded $625 million for little more than a year’s work on a case already being settled before counsel was retained and after counsel has already reached individual accords on behalf of two other states? Are these attorneys accountable to no one when questions abound with respect to the manner in which their fees were agreed to or awarded, or the effect their payment might have on the client states? The road to reform, like all great achievements, requires a first step, and Justice Ramos should be commended for his bravery in taking it. With no one at his side, he has challenged an institution that believes and continues to argue that it is above the law. Hopefully, the judiciary will follow Ramos’ lead that no one in our civil justice system is above the law — not even the plaintiffs contingent-fee bar. Robin S. Conrad is special counsel at the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform in Washington, D.C.

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