By Brad Hendricks, previous ATLA President
* Originally published in the ATLA Docket, Fall 2003.
Our members are now presumably fully aware of the fact that the playing field in Arkansas politics has radically changed. We have very few attorneys in the legislature. The advent of term limits has produced a legislature which is essentially devoid of institutional memory. Special interests find their own candidates to run for political office. Many of these politicians come into office with a specific agenda, and are willing to “trade votes” on just about anything to accomplish their limited objectives. The largest media outlet in Arkansas has become an editorial spokesman for the insurance industry and the Chamber of Commerce. “Tort reform” was passed in Arkansas not by Republicans alone. It was introduced by a Democrat and was passed by a legislature controlled by Democrats. Consider the cumulative effects of these developments, and the enormity of the task before us becomes clear.
The obstacles to our efforts to prevent further damage to our system of justice are formidable, but trial lawyers don’t roll over. Trial lawyers don’t quit in the face of adversity. In our practices, we take adversity and turn it into opportunity. That is the challenge before us now.
IMPACT articles such as this one are generally designed to describe what we are trying to accomplish through ATLA IMPACT, and why it is important. Although this article will provide information about what is going on in ATLA on the political and financial fronts, it will also provide a candid assessment of how we got our heads handed to us in the last legislative session, and what we are doing to stop the juggernaut of special interests who won’t rest until our judicial system is rendered impotent.
What happened to us in the last session is a complex convergence of issues, as set forth in the opening paragraph above. But what could ATLA have done differently? What should we have done differently? Those are the questions which have dominated the discussions and strategy sessions among ATLA’s Executive Committee members. Although there are many complex factors and nuances involved to sum it up, we did not prepare ourselves sufficiently in advance to be able to effectively deal with the changes which were created by term limits.
The reasons why we were not fully prepared revolve primarily around our past successes. Arkansas was the last state to enact some form of “tort reform.” Our opponents always shot themselves in the foot by trying to grab too much, and our lobbying team had prevented such bills from ever coming out of committee, aided by wise and experienced legislators who understood the issues. Consider how much things had changed between the last two sessions. From one session to the next, most of the stalwart legislators were gone, and the ranks of our lawyer-legislators were thin. Following the session in 2001, we had a “love fest” during our annual meeting in Eureka Springs, during which we were all busy patting ourselves on the back not only for defeating “tort reform”, but also for getting some significant statutory improvements for our clients and our members. As it turned out, we should have been busy drastically changing our, organization. Understandably, the notion of changing the tactics which had worked so well for so long seemed unthinkable to many after the session of 2001, despite the fact that the changing face of the legislature could be seen on the political horizon. Moreover, we were simply too flush with our own success. To quote Chip Welch, “People don’t want to build a dam when there has been no flood.” We finally had our equivalent of a flood, and we were not ready for it.
Contrast the self-satisfaction which defined our 2001 annual meeting with the tenor of our 2003 meeting in Eureka Springs. It was a dangerous time for our organization as we risked descending into personality conflicts and finger pointing. But we overcame our reactionary impulses, thanks to the professionalism of Carol Utley, Bob Estes, Q. Byrum Hurst, David Williams, Bobby McDaniel, Clark Mason, Chip Welch, Nick Patton and others. Like any other strong family, we put our disagreements behind us and united like never before. All grievances were aired and addressed, and we resolved to roll up our sleeves and get to work. We have realized that we were victims of our own success by failing to radically change following the session of 2001. With the benefit of hindsight, we now know what we should have done, and we are working overtime to make whatever changes are necessary in preparation for the next regular session, which is only fourteen months away.
This is not the same ATLA that we have known in the past, and it shouldn’t be. Our Young Lawyers Division is more politically active than it has ever been. Our Executive Committee, which in the past met three times per year, now meets weekly. Instead of just contributing to candidates through IMPACT (which we still do, of course) we now actively recruit candidates to run for legislative seats, and we support them financially through the organization and with personal contributions. We are working to remove our opponents from office by defeating them at the polls. We are transforming our lobbying effort to respond to the changed circumstances. We are revamping our organizational structure so that we have the best talent handling that which they do best. We are mounting our challenge to the nonsense which the legislature passed in their effort to usurp the constitutional authority of our judiciary. We are reaching out to our membership so that we can get input and ideas in face-to-face settings. We are modifying our Constitution and By-Laws to change the nature of membership in ATLA, and we are improving the security of our communications.
In order to accomplish the things which are absolutely necessary if we are to reverse the tide against us, ATLA must have the most phenomenal fund-raising year in its history. Each member of the Board of Governors will participate in two fund-raising drives around the state. We have twelve drives scheduled statewide. President Hurst has also created a special fund-raising team which will work constantly throughout the year.
The issue before us is really quite simple. We can roll over and take whatever these term-limited, special interest legislators cram down our collective throats, or we can rise up and demonstrate in no uncertain terms that you don’t tread on trial lawyers. If you want to be a part of this fight now, don’t wait on us to call on you. Write the biggest check that you can possibly afford to the Arkansas Trial Lawyers Association, and volunteer to raise additional funds from your colleagues. When you make a good fee from a good case, take that opportunity to contribute to our common cause. If you haven’t written your check by the time we call you or come to see you in person, take that opportunity to demonstrate your commitment to winning this fight by contributing generously to ATLA. Observers must become participants and participants must become activists. Everyone has to step it up to a higher level of involvement and contribution. Only with your help can we reverse the legislative trend which preys on the weakest in our society, denies equal access to justice, and severely threatens the practice of law on behalf of plaintiffs.