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Last year was a bad one for California’s consumer attorneys. The political blows landed early and never let up, culminating in the knockout punch of Prop 64. Consumer attorneys have found someone new to blame: themselves. They let tort reformers define the terms, and then waited too long to mount much of a counterattack. As a new legislative session starts this week, the Consumer Attorneys of California are eagerly climbing back into the ring behind the new president, Sharon Arkin. “CAOC has certainly gotten a wake-up call,” said Wylie Aitken, a former CAOC president. “These things are cyclical. We have always had a great deal of success, and sometimes that causes us to lower our guard.” Arkin, a partner at Newport Beach’s Robinson, Calcagnie & Robinson, has several weapons in her corner. Among the new legislators sworn in Monday are nine elected with CAOC backing. Arkin, who took over Dec. 1, will also emphasize fund raising in her one-year term. But to make any headway, she knows she needs to be the crowd favorite. Voters need to be made aware that business-backed reforms are eroding their rights, she says. “The fallacy is if we protect corporations so they can’t be held responsible for the injuries they cause, then economically our society will be better,” says Arkin. “We need to change the ongoing debate and make people aware of what’s going on.” Establishing an “ongoing public image campaign” will be a cornerstone of her one-year term, she says. It’s an approach that CAOC members “are very much behind” in light of the defeats suffered in the past year, Arkin said. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger emerged as a formidable opponent over the past year. He campaigned on a pro-business, tort-reform platform and quickly proved himself a strong ally of the state’s Chamber of Commerce and business interests. In the last weeks, he jumped in to help the Yes on 64 campaign. “Everybody suspected he was a Chamber guy,” said former CAOC President Bruce Brusavich. “Now it’s undeniable that he’s brought the Chamber right into the horseshoe.” Schwarzenegger has lent his popularity to tort reformers who’d been largely unsuccessful in a Legislature dominated by Democrats and friendly toward plaintiff lawyers. Schwarzenegger vetoed the so-called car buyers bill of rights. He shut applicant attorneys out of the rehaul of the workers compensation system. Then he sought to give the state a three-quarter cut of punitive damage awards. The final blow came on Nov. 2, with the passage of Proposition 64, a business-backed attack on Business and Professions Code � 17200 that pundits and pollsters had pegged for an easy defeat. Tort reformers say the plaintiff bar brought on their own troubles by refusing to compromise on legislative fixes to 17200 in the months before Prop 64 was placed on the ballot. In the 2003-04 session alone, several attempts failed, and some moderate Democrats balked at plaintiff-backed proposals, saying they didn’t offer much of a compromise. “It’s unfortunate that [trial lawyers] had to be exposed to so much public display of the flawed system they were protecting,” said John Sullivan, president of the Civil Justice Association of California, which helped secure passage of Prop 64. “The plaintiff bar found it to their advantage to turn [17200] into an issue they could use to dominate lawmaking,” said Sullivan. “That fell apart because it was so blatantly self-motivated.” Arkin and other CAOC members say their interest in a 17200 compromise was genuine. They believed Schwarzenegger wanted to resolve the stalemate without resorting to a ballot measure — causing them to wait too long to mount a serious No on 64 campaign. “The governor taught us a very important lesson: We can’t trust him,” said Arkin. But consultants not involved in Prop 64 drew a different lesson. “It was political malpractice born of spending too much time in Sacramento,” said Dan Schnur, one of the state’s leading Republican campaign consultants. “There was a lot of money at stake,” said Dave Gilliard, who directed Rescue California, the campaign that worked to recall Gov. Gray Davis. “The plaintiff bar realized what it meant and should have been quicker on the draw.” Longtime Democratic consultant Richie Ross of Ross Communications Inc. handled the Prop 64 campaign for CAOC. But Arkin said CAOC has no plans to replace Ross, its other outside lobbyists or its in-house lobby staff. “They’re bright, they’re very conscientious and they have great instincts,” she said. Nevertheless, Arkin said CAOC will likely seek “other perspectives” in the form of a new firm tasked with telling the electorate “what tort reform is” should business interests press their advantage in the coming year. Arkin and other CAOC leaders say they’re optimistic about the coming legislative session, thanks in part to nine new Assembly members elected with CAOC support. On Monday, Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez named one of those freshmen, Dave Jones, a Sacramento city councilman and former public interest lawyer, to head up the Assembly Judiciary Committee. The other CAOC-supported newcomers include Noreen Evans, a Santa Rosa city councilwoman and civil litigation associate with Lanahan & Reilley in Santa Rosa; Thomas Umberg, a former assemblyman and Morrison & Forester partner returning to state office; Ira Ruskin, a former Redwood City mayor; Pedro Nava, a prosecutor and former coastal commissioner; Joe Coto, a former Oakland Unified School District superintendent; Karen Bass, a Los Angeles community leader; Joe Baca, a former teacher and correctional officer; and Juan Arambula, a Fresno County supervisor with a law degree from Boalt Hall. “We have some really good people coming in,” observed Brusavich. “I’m looking forward to a much more progressive Assembly.” But Sullivan believes tort reformers have the momentum. “The electorate showed very strong support of eliminating nonproductive litigation,” said Sullivan. “I think it is a strong climate for legal reform.” Arkin, too, sounds mindful of the Nov. 2 election results, noting that plaintiff lawyers will need to do a better job of reaching across the aisle. “We have to talk to Republicans, we have to talk to evangelicals, we have to talk to the entire spectrum of our citizens to make them understand what is happening,” said Arkin. “For us, it never has been, and never should be, a partisan issue.”

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