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What Comes With Tort Reform?

Graphic by Todd Wiseman, Texas Tribune

Texans for Lawsuit Reform is the biggest and richest tort reform group in the state. No surprise there. But as its political action committee has become the dominant financial engine for legislative races, it has helped create a Legislature that’s not only more conservative about legal issues, but more conservative, period.

For a good long while, TLR’s money tended to push out Democrats who, when considering civil justice issues, tended to vote with the state’s trial lawyers. Tort reform's battlefields have changed over the years, from trucking deregulation to workers’ compensation insurance reform, through the political campaigns that swung the Texas Supreme Court from a nine-member Democratic panel beholden to the plaintiffs bar to a nine-member Republican panel beholden to TLR and like-minded people and groups.

In the mid-1990s, TLR became a powerhouse, overshadowing older business groups and interests. When George W. Bush ran for governor in 1994, one of the four planks in his platform was tort reform. When he took office in 1995, he and the Legislature rewrote some of the state’s basic civil laws, changing the economics of suing for civil damages in Texas and putting some serious hurt on the trial lawyers on the other side.

Not all of that was about civil justice. The Texas Trial Lawyers Association and, individually, some of the state’s wealthiest trial lawyers, were the dominant financial force on the Democratic side of the political ledger. (The Texas Trial Lawyers Association is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune.) What tort reform did in the courts was relatively easy to see, with this law limiting liability, and that one changing the rules on who was liable for what, and another one setting new rules on where and when lawsuits could be filed.

The changes in politics weren’t as obvious. They weren’t written into law. No legislative hearings — or, for that matter, court hearings — were held.

But as tort reform became a politically popular issue and TLR rose in power, it started crowding out Democrats backed by the trial lawyers. And the Republicans who replaced them have been more conservative on a variety of issues, from tort reform to immigration to taxation.

Texas Democrats are in the political wilderness now. They haven’t won a statewide election since 1994. Republicans dominate the Congressional delegation, and if their new redistricting maps hold up in court, they’ll probably increase their dominance as the state gains four new seats in Congress. Republican senators outnumber Democrats 19 to 12, and the red shirts outnumber the blue shirts 101 to 49.

TLR has contributed to Democrats as well as to Republicans, but it has had an easier time finding Republicans who agree with it. And some of the Democrats the group has supported have jumped to the other team — most recently Aaron Peña of Edinburg and Allan Ritter of Nederland, who both became Republicans after the November 2010 elections.

Richard Trabulsi Jr., TLR’s president, is a Democrat in a group of leaders dominated by Republicans. He says the group studiously avoids getting into issues — collateral issues — that don’t center on the legal system. It doesn’t play in business tax fights, or battles over social issues or races for speaker of the House. And it tries to ignore party affiliations.

"We're not fools," he says. "We would like to see Democrats become more pro-jobs, have a more open mind on civil justice issues, regulatory issues, tax issues, because we think in the long-term governance of Texas, it's important."

"There's less and less opportunity within the Democratic Party for those who have pro-entrepreneurial opinions about policy," he adds.

With the Republicans clearly in control of the state government and of state politics, they’re having some disagreements among themselves. It’s hard to keep everyone in a big tent in politics — just ask the Texas Democrats who dominated the scene for so long. Joe Straus is only the fourth Republican speaker of the House in state history. David Dewhurst is only the third Republican lieutenant governor. Rick Perry is only the fifth Republican governor of the state.

TLR hasn’t made its choices on who will get its financial and political support in the 2012 elections, but there are rumblings. Two Republican senators — Jeff Wentworth of San Antonio and Chris Harris of Arlington — could draw opposition from the group if TLR-friendly Republicans choose to run against them. (State Rep. Rodney Anderson, Republican of Grand Prairie, has already said he’ll challenge Harris.) Other Republican senators, like John Carona of Dallas and Robert Duncan of Lubbock, have periodically walked into the group’s line of fire, and they’ll both be on the ballot next year.

Changes in any of those seats could change the politics of the Texas Senate, even without partisan changes in any of them. It would make it more conservative, changing the legislative outcomes on issues that range far beyond tort reform, starting with the Senate’s vote to replace the lieutenant governor should Dewhurst leave for higher office.

It might not be civil justice, but it’s part of the package.

Ross Ramsey is managing editor of The Texas Tribune and continues as editor of Texas Weekly, the premier newsletter on government and politics in the Lone Star State, a role he's had since September 1998. Texas Weekly was a print-only journal when he took the reins in 1998; he switched it to a subscription-based, internet-only journal by the end of 2004 without a significant loss in subscribers. As Texas Weekly's primary writer for 11 years, he turned out roughly 2 million words in more than 500 editions, added an online library of resources and documents and items of interest to insiders, and a daily news clipping service that links to stories from papers across Texas. Before joining Texas Weekly in September 1998, Ramsey was associate deputy comptroller for policy with the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts, also working as the agency's director of communications. Prior to that 28-month stint in government, Ramsey spent 17 years in journalism, reporting for the Houston Chronicle from its Austin bureau and for the Dallas Times Herald, first on the business desk in Dallas and later as the paper's Austin bureau chief. Prior to that, as a Dallas-based freelance business writer, he wrote for regional and national magazines and newspapers. Ramsey got his start in journalism in broadcasting, working for almost seven years covering news for radio stations in Denton and Dallas.