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So far, the fight to reform California’s unfair competition law has seemed more showbiz than substance. There’s a skeletal bill from Assemblyman Lou Correa that has yet to take shape. Tort reformers pushing for change have yet to reveal exactly what they want. And even though there isn’t a proposal on the table, the plaintiffs bar is warning of potential disaster. What is clear is that legislators — particularly Democrats — are facing a tough choice: either anger trial lawyers by voting for substantial reform or alienate business interests. “We are not going to throw out the baby with the bath water,” said Correa, an Orange County Democrat who hosted a town hall meeting on the issue Friday. Correa’s meeting gave tort reformers and consumer attorneys a chance to trot out their best emotion-charged arguments on the law, Business & Professions Code, § 17200. But the real work on legislation is likely to begin today as the Assembly and Senate judiciary committees hold a joint hearing to discuss the law. The star of this show is likely to be Attorney General Bill Lockyer. In fact, Lockyer may be the key player in bridging the gap between tort reformers from the Civil Justice Association of California and their adversaries from the Consumer Attorneys of California. CJAC has formed a coalition of business interests to fight for § 17200 reform. Already, Lockyer has taken the unusual step of asking the State Bar to investigate attorneys accused of filing frivolous � 17200 cases against small businesses. He has also met with a coalition of tort reformers and is the first person scheduled to speak at today’s hearing. Lockyer’s office said it has not yet developed a position on how far reform should go. The AG has developed relationships with both business interests and plaintiffs lawyers, and both have made significant contributions to his campaign coffers. If he runs for governor in 2006 as many expect, he likely will weigh the desires of both sides. It’s going to be a tough fight. CJAC says trial lawyers will be unwilling to make substantial changes. Consumer Attorneys say the problem is not the law but the unethical lawyers who abuse it. On Friday, both groups took the stage at a sometimes raucous meeting held in Correa’s district. Angry business owners allied with CJAC interrupted the five-hour hearing several times to tell Correa they weren’t happy with the pace of reform. Correa — who chairs the Assembly Business and Professions Committee — criticized the State Bar for allowing attorneys under investigation for allegedly filing frivolous § 17200 suits to continue to practice law. He said he is exploring reform because thousands of Southern California small businesses are being targeted in “extortion” lawsuits. In the suits, plaintiffs attorneys persuade business owners to pay to settle § 17200 actions, even though the basis of the action is usually just a minor violation of state regulations, according to several lawyers who spoke Friday. State Bar Deputy Trial Counsel Jayne Kim addressed the crowd to ask for patience — and more tips about possible wrongdoing. “This is a top priority for our office,” she said. Consumer Attorneys is worried that CJAC will manipulate the reform effort to push an agenda that will undermine consumer rights. Group President Bruce Brusavich said he’s worried that CJAC wants to “strip the public’s ability to use § 17200 and limit [its use] to prosecutors.” CJAC President John Sullivan said the problem goes beyond what’s happening in Correa’s district. “It involves piling unfair competition on top of other claims in order to leverage higher settlements,” Sullivan said. But even as Correa is figuring out what language to put in his bill, several other legislators are getting ready to introduce competing legislation, according to Correa’s office. Republican Assemblyman Robert Pacheco of the City of Industry has already introduced the business-friendly AB 102. And Correa said he expects bills from Democrat Ellen Corbett, head of the Assembly Judiciary Committee; Republican Dick Ackerman, a pro-business state senator who ran against Lockyer; and possibly others. Gov. Gray Davis has not taken a position on this year’s reform, but administration officials were scheduled to meet to discuss it Monday afternoon, said a spokesperson. If all this sounds like deja vu, it’s because § 17200 reform has come up every year since 1996, when the California Law Revision Commission recommended that legislators change the law, according to speakers at the hearing. In response to the commission’s recommendation, then-state Sen. Quentin Kopp introduced SB 143 in 1997, which did not pass. At Friday’s hearing, Robert Fellmeth, a public interest law professor at the University of San Diego School of Law, said it’s high time to implement Kopp’s bill — with a few tweaks. “I’m going to try to refrain from saying ‘I told you so,’” said Fellmeth, who also helped draft § 17200 in the early 1970s. Fellmeth’s suggestions include encouraging the formation of defendant classes, having those acting as private attorneys general notify the state AG about what they’re doing, requiring court review of settlements, and making final judgments and regulatory actions final (� 17200 allows multiple suits against the same defendants). Consumer Attorneys opposed the Kopp bill. Brusavich, the group’s president, said Consumer Attorneys this year would only support court review of settlements, and then only if they’re public. And it’s unclear whether Lockyer will go as far as Fellmeth. A spokesman said the AG’s office hasn’t finished collecting the information it needs to take a position on reform. Even though Fellmeth is helping the AG collect that information, “Professor Fellmeth’s proposals, while desiring a respectful consideration by the Legislature, do not reflect the views of the attorney general,” said spokesman Tom Dresslar.

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