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The Republican-controlled Senate began a new effort Tuesday to restrict class action lawsuits that corporations contend are little more than get-rich schemes for trial lawyers. The Senate action came as Democratic presidential contender John Kerry picked the Senate’s best-known former trial lawyer, John Edwards, to be his running mate. Debate on the Class Action Fairness Act was scheduled before Kerry announced his choice. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said it would not become a vehicle to attack Edwards, who has opposed legislation limiting rights to take businesses to court. “I see no connection with the vice presidential nomination,” Frist said. The legislation, which would shift some class action suits from state to federal courts, gives both parties a chance to air their political priorities a few weeks before the presidential conventions. Republicans see this bill as their best chance to rein in court awards that they and their business allies say drain the American economy of billions of dollars. Democrats probably will use the bill to force votes on some of their top issues, including an increased minimum wage. The career of Edwards, D-N.C., a former trial lawyer who made millions representing consumers who courts found were wronged by big business, is certain to be part of the debate. “Senator Edwards has consistently supported a pro-litigation, anti-civil justice reform agenda that puts his wealthy personal injury lawyer patrons ahead of the American people,” said Sherman Joyce, president of the American Tort Reform Association. The bill would move more class action lawsuits, in which one person or a small group represents the interests of a class of people in court, out of state courts into federal courts. Juries in state courts sometimes agree to huge penalties, but federal courts tend to accept fewer cases and grant smaller rewards. The legislation also is aimed at cutting back on venue shopping, the practice of attorneys who seek to have cases tried in courts known for handing down huge damage awards. “The most important aspect of it is it will put an end to class action lawsuits that have national significance but they are decided in some Podunk county in some state of the nation like Madison County, Ill.,” said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, the chief sponsor. The county of 259,000 people near St. Louis has been the site of several big class action lawsuits that covered such issues as asbestos and tobacco. Companies have tended to settle rather than risk big jury awards there. The Class Action Fairness Coalition, a group of business organizations, cited an example from the county in which a case over allegedly faulty television sets resulted in plaintiffs getting a $25-$50 rebate on future purchases while lawyers took home $22 million. Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle said the bill was “one of the worst anti-consumer pieces of legislation that we will see in this Congress” because it would help businesses escape judgments for wrongdoing. Sally Greenberg, senior counsel for the Consumers Union, said it would take from state courts such traditional state issues as contract disputes and consumer fraud. “It’s a radical effort by the corporate community to restructure the court system to an environment they think is going to be better for them,” she said. Last October the Senate fell one vote short of the 60 votes necessary to push ahead with the legislation. After lengthy negotiations to carve out exceptions on cases going to federal courts, several Democrats, including Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and Charles Schumer of New York, agreed last December on a compromise version. Daschle said that while Republicans may have the votes to pass the bill, which has cleared the House in a different form, the bill would not advance without votes on several Democratic proposals. Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., plans to offer an amendment that would raise the minimum wage from the current $5.15 an hour to $7 over several years. Others may propose renewing the assault weapons ban that is to expire this year and increasing controls on gases that are thought to cause global warming. Republicans may offer a counterproposal to the minimum wage, and Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, may join Kennedy with an amendment to extend legal status to undocumented farm workers. Copyright 2004 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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