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The GOP-controlled Senate on Wednesday fought back attempts to change legislation that would send most class action lawsuits to federal court, increasing the likelihood that the measure will pass Congress and be signed by President Bush. Under an agreement between the two houses, if senators don’t change the legislation, the House will pass it quickly and send it to the White House. Bush, speaking in the Commerce Department building just blocks from Capitol Hill, pressured senators to pass the bill without any changes. “They’re trying to amend the bill,” Bush said Wednesday. “That’s code word for they’re trying to weaken the bill. They’re trying to make the bill not effective.” Bush and other supporters say the bill, which would send most multistate class action lawsuits to federal court instead of allowing them to be heard in state courts, is needed because lawyers try to file their lawsuits in states where they can get large payouts. Senators who back the bill say greedy lawyers make more money from such cases than do the actual victims, and that lawyers sometimes threaten companies with class action suits just to get quick financial settlements. Opponents of the bill say it is aimed at helping businesses escape multimillion-dollar judgments for their wrongdoing and would hurt lawyers trying to litigate those cases. The Senate rejected, 60-39, an amendment by Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., that would have made state attorneys general exempt from the legislation’s restrictions. He and 46 state attorneys general argued the bill could reduce their power to sue, because attorneys general sometimes act as the class representative for consumers in their state. The legislation, if enacted, would interfere “with one means of protecting our citizens from unlawful actions,” said a letter signed by attorneys general from 15 states. A later letter, submitted as Pryor was arguing for his amendment on the Senate floor, was signed by 46 attorneys general. The only four states whose attorney general did not sign were Alabama, Illinois, New Mexico and Texas, according to a Pryor aide. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas and that state’s former attorney general, said the bill “does not impede any authority of any attorney general.” The bill’s opponents contend federal judges routinely dismiss class action suits that deal with multistate law, saying that applying more than one state’s law to a case makes it too unwieldily. If this legislation passes, those case will have nowhere to be heard, since state courts will be banned from hearing them, they said. But the Senate, on a 61-38 vote, barred an amendment that would have prevented federal judges from dismissing cases simply because the laws of more than one state would apply. The Senate also rejected an amendment that would have exempted civil rights and labor class action lawsuits on a 59-40 vote. A 2003 letter from a federal judges’ organization argued that sending those cases to federal courts could hurt the courts as well. The Judicial Conference of the United States, the federal court system’s policy-making board led by Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist, told the Senate in 2003 that it opposed bills like the one Congress is now considering. “That opposition was based on concerns that the provisions would add substantially to the workload of the federal courts,” Leonidas Ralph Meacham, director of the conference’s administrative office, said in the March 26, 2003 letter. In fiscal year 2003, 2,148 new class action cases were filed in federal courts, court officials said. That was down from the two previous years, with 2,818 filed in 2002 and 3,082 in 2001. No one tallies the number of class action suits filed in state courts, but the bill’s supporters guess that thousands of class action lawsuits are filed there as well. A November news release from the courts said budget cuts required the federal courts to reduce their work force by 1,350 jobs in 2003, furlough more than 500 workers, and reduce the public hours in the clerks’ office and freeze or dramatically reduce non-case related travel, training and new contracts. Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, rewritten, or redistributed.

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