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The pain in plaintiffs’ lawyer Ralph Knowles, Jr.’s Atlanta drawl is melodramatic, but convincing nonetheless. He’s been hurt — betrayed by his onetime hero, Ralph Nader. Now it’s payback time. “His was the most arrogant, self-serving action I’ve ever seen,” Knowles says. “People he cares about will be controlled by judges hostile to the cause of consumer rights.” To hear Knowles tell it, Nader’s eagerness to prove a point handed the election to a trial-lawyer-bashing Republican. So, as far as he’s concerned, it’s curtains for any Nader-affiliated group — anything that smacks remotely of Ralph Nader. “Not only am I very angry,” says Knowles, a partner at Atlanta-based Doffermyre, Shields, Canfield, Knowles & Devine, “but I will absolutely withdraw all financial support from anything he’s involved in.” Knowles is not alone. “I’m probably going to withhold some support,” says Charles “Bucky” Zimmerman of Minneapolis’ Zimmerman Reed. “I don’t want to hold a grudge, but I take this as a blow and will reexamine my commitments. Maybe there’s a better place for my dollars.” While both Knowles and Zimmerman say they contribute to Nader causes, neither would say exactly how much. Should such Nader-founded groups as Public Citizen expect to see their budgets dry up over trial-lawyer backlash? The majority of trial lawyers interviewed for this article, politically heartbroken though they may be, distinguish the groups and causes from the founder himself. They said they would continue to support Nader-affiliated organizations that work for their favored pro-consumer, anti-tort reform causes. “Most lawyers are intelligent enough to know these organizations are not dependent on Ralph politically; they advocate in the public interest for issues that the lawyers are interested in,” says Frederick Baron, head of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America and a partner at the Dallas plaintiffs firm Baron & Budd. Baron, for one, will continue to support Public Citizen and other Nader-spawned advocacy groups as long as they steer clear of Green Party politics. Nader himself is unfazed by the prospect of having lost his flock. It is the Democratic party, he insists — and not Ralph Nader — that is to blame, for putting a tort reformer like Joe Lieberman on the presidential ticket. “He’s their archenemy — ushering pieces of tort reform through Congress. The Democratic party is collapsing in on trial lawyers,” Nader says. “Somebody has to develop a pull in the proper direction.” Besides, says Nader, trial lawyers talk up a storm but have contributed relatively little to the coffers of organizations such as Public Citizen and the more than 10 other advocacy groups that Nader has founded. Joan Claybrook, Public Citizen’s president, and others affiliated with the organization say that the bulk of its funding comes from grants, and from nonlawyer members. Nader’s campaign certainly had to learn to live without significant lawyer contributions. “You’ve got to be very careful,” he warns of plaintiffs lawyers as a breed. “You know these guys are prone to exaggeration.” Even Public Citizen’s foes say that they aren’t holding their breath. “[The trial lawyers] need him more than he needs them. These guys would have trouble making a living without Ralph Nader,” says Victor Schwartz, the general counsel of the American Tort Reform Association, and a longtime ideological nemesis, and friend, of Nader’s. “It would be like a turtle without a shell. But if they abandon him, that’s fine with me.” Walter Olson of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, who runs a Web site called Overlawyered.com, thinks that whatever ire is directed at Nader initially, “there’s no one like him, who can get their issues into newspapers with such favorable press coverage. They’re not about to go around building up someone from scratch.”

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