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Oklahoma Republican Party at War – Can Constitutional Conservatives Save our Right to a Jury?

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There is a battle brewing for control of the Oklahoma Republican Party. On one side is big business who wants its ubiquitous goals of tort, workers compensation and special tax breaks to better its major players regardless of the rights of average Oklahomans who allowed the Oklahoma Republican party to sweep to victory last November. The other side is strong constitutional conservatives who want a legislature grounded in solid conservative ideas such as less government interference, responsible spending and lower taxes. As a conservative trial lawyer (yes many of us exist) I pray the constitutional conservatives win.

This battle is of special importance as it relates to lawsuit reform which the faux conservatives that proclaimed the 2009 so called reforms the best in the nation and are now chomping at the bit to pass in order to appease their special interest big business donors. As I will detail below, its just not trial lawyers believing big business has already co-opted the Oklahoma’s Republican Party establishment.

Before I discuss the fact that the Oklahoma Republican Party’s establishment has been bought and paid for by big business, I want to touch on the unconstitutionality of their draconian proposals for lawsuit reform. The purest form of being a constitutional conservative lies with combating proposals from either party that attempt to circumvent and tamper with the sanctity of our personal rights as afforded in our nation and state’s constitutions. As to lawsuit reform, the Oklahoma establishment party, ergo big business, is not abiding by the long and proud Republican tenant of fighting government intervention and preserving constitutional balance. Instead, they desire to shift that balance from average Oklahomans to their big business donors. Make no mistake, the proposals from faux conservatives regarding the 7th Amendment and lawsuit reform will universally tamper with the sanctity of the jury system as created by the constitutional framers. Further, these proposals, not born from sound conservative principles, will universally be the biggest usurpation of Oklahomans rights possibly in the proud history of this state.

To buttress my point, Glen Coffee who is heading up Governor-elect Fallin’s transition team and who is the former President Pro Tempore of the Senate commented in a press release just this year that the 2009 tort reforms were among the best in the country. Mr. Coffee raved citing research in a press release that Oklahoma now “ has the best tort rules on the books-and that will be heading in the right direction if the rules are fully implemented-is Oklahoma, followed by Texas, Ohio, Colorado, and Mississippi. In another press release insurance lawyer Representative Dan Sullivan states said Sullivan, R-Tulsa. "this bill will ensure all Oklahomans with legitimate claims have a level playing field when they walk into a courtroom. This is real reform that will have real results." Term limited Speaker of the House Chris Benge said in the same press release that "[t]he collaboration that occurred between all interested parties to reach this landmark agreement is exactly the type of work the people of Oklahoma expect from their leaders…” However, as the Oklahoma GOP begins to caucus, these statements seem irrelevant as they appear ready to cater to special interests. Apparently, big business doesn’t appreciate the current “level playing field’ as stated by Representative Sullivan.

While I can’t speak to their views on lawsuit reform, it appears many of those groups who actively campaigned for Oklahoma Republicans this last election cycle are realizing that the establishment of the Oklahoma Republican Party is too tied to the hip of big business. One blogger succinctly states that

when Governor-Elect Mary Fallin started naming her staff, it became clear who co-opted whom. Her first move was to name Robert Sullivan, Jr. to serve as the Special Advisor on Economic Development. Sullivan is a big proponent for Tulsa’s River Tax and Vision 2025, as well as a member of the Tulsa Metro Chamber. Next, she names Chairman of the Oklahoma State Chamber David Rainbolt and former State Representative Gary Sherrer. Later, she chooses Larry Nichols, CEO of Devon Energy, on her transition team.

A recent newsok.com quoted conservative activist Charlie Meadows as saying

It certainly made it appear that leadership and Speaker-elect Steele perhaps are going to ignore social issues and issues other than just what maybe The State Chamber and The Oklahoman would consider to be economic issues.

It also appears some of our conservative elected leaders are getting it. There is a statement attributed to Representative Christian from a local Oklahoma conservative blogger which states

As House Republicans shared cheese and wine with their close friends from big business and the Chamber of Commerce, grass-root Republicans were shut out of the building and protesting in the cold winter air for the Republican Party to govern with the same agenda it campaigned on.

While I’m personally for man y of the social conservative issues being pushed by various groups, I strongly encourage them to abide by a constitutional conservative viewpoint about the draconian lawsuit reform that is coming forth in favor of big business.

3 Comments

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  1. Larry Parman says:
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    Jeremy, I am a small business owner and partner of a small, but successful law firm in Oklahoma. I have known our Gov-elect for 30 years (as have many), was a contributor to and participant in her various campaigns. She garnered 60% of the vote in OK on the platform of creating a more competitive business environment for all Oklahomans to spur per capita income, improvements in our education system to provide a more qualified work force for those jobs and right-sizing goverment to reflect our resources and needs.

    I was also named to the Transition Committee. There is a mix of people on that committee from throughout the state, not just those representing “connected at the hip” big business. In fact, there are many “bigs” noticeably absent. Througout the years the Gov-elect has reached out to Oklahomans from all walks of life for input. She will continue to do so, making final decisions based on her platform and beliefs.

    I am also sure the points being raised by all legislators will be heard as they pursue their legislative perogatives. The argument Republicans are going to have concerns pace. Everyone wants their agenda item at the top of the legislative list. All in good time.

    As to the issues that concern your firm, while I do not practice in your area, I understand many of the issues. I served on the board of CompSource and as its chair while Keating was governor. The Gov-elect will be taking a close look at reform in this area to make Oklahoma competitive with other states for our own employers as well as those firms considering re-location. As you know, legal fees and the formulas for medical reimbursements are important components of this issue. So, I recommend you step up and submit a list of proposals to the administration to be sure they are considered. Give them to me and I promise you they will be read.

    Jeremy, this is politics…all other games for children. All of us are going to be disappointed, right? None of us will agree with every decision made by Gov. Fallin, every piece of legislation that is passed. That’s part of the hardball of politics. But, the Gov-elect realizes every decision is to some degree an economic development decision. Job #1 is to make Oklahoma a place where conservative values prevail, where well-paying jobs abound and where children receive an education second to none. She will pursue those objectives with passion.

    Larry Parman

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    Larry:

    Thank you for your comment. While I’m sure we could have an enjoyable time debating why Governor-Elect Fallin was elected I will not go there as it’s an exercise in guess work for all of us. However, I did want to brush upon a couple of topics you discuss in hopes of better understanding your comments and clarifying mine, if need be.

    The first point I wanted to make is my blog is and was intended to focus on tort law, not workers compensation. It appears most of your arguments were geared toward the workers compensation arena which you know is wholly different than negligence aka tort law. I did mention workers compensation in the first paragraph but hopefully I made it clear my focus was and is on tort law. If not, I will attempt to do a better job explaining the difference next time.

    While I have a fundamental understanding of workers compensation law, I do not practice in that arena so it would be better left to those who do to discuss the intricacies of workers compensation reforms. However, as I’m sure you know, Oklahoma passed Workers Compensation Reform last ession. Senate Pro Tempore Glen Coffee stated the following about the 2010 reforms: “[t]he four bills, SB 1973, and House Bills 1611, 2650 and 2652 are the results of hours of discussions that began last summer and continued through to the passage of the legislation. The result of these bills will be reduced costs for employers and an improved and more effective worker’s compensation system for injured workers in Oklahoma. It is estimated the bills will save Oklahoma business at least $60.5 million.”

    The second point I want to make goes back to my discussion on tort reform, corporate immunity, lawsuit reform or whatever catchy name we all use to describe it. In your comment you state “[a]s to the issues that concern your firm, while I do not practice in your area, I understand many of the issues…As you know, legal fees and the formulas for medical reimbursements are important components of this issue.” While I believe your comment is directed solely at workers compensation reform, I wanted to use it to discuss tort reform in the context of a constitutional conservative viewpoint.

    First, as to legal fees in the tort law, as you know in 2009 the legislature attempted to cap the percentages attorneys could use in a contingency cap. But for a few strong constitutional conservatives who bucked the establishment, this would have been law. While this may appeal to the novice, contingency fee caps are anything but conservative. In analyzing such, how would you and other law firms who bill by the hour feel if the Oklahoma legislature decided to limit the amount associates and partners could charge on a per hour basis? Would this be an unnecessary limitation into your firm’s business practices? Or even taking the conservative argument one step further, limiting fees would go against the core principle of a free market economy. Instead of fostering competition as it relates to clients shopping for attorneys, the legislature essentially be wiping out competition as it relates to cost. Shouldn’t better lawyers be able to charge more? And who is next? Is the farmer, the banker or the insurance company that we decide how much they can contract for their services?

    While I won’t discuss in-depth, I do want to brush upon damage caps. I believe that damage caps are anything but conservative. While those sitting in powerful places may believe they know more than a jury, what conservative basis do they have to put themselves in place of jury? Yet, by placing caps, whether it’s Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid and/or Governor Elect Fallin, that is exactly what they are doing. They are telling a jury, empanelled under the 7th Amendment, that they may know enough to send a man to the electric chair, but they do not know enough to determine the monetary amount an injured Oklahoman should have. That is undue government interference at its highest point.

    I would ask you and everyone involved in Governor-elect Fallin’s staff to ask yourself, how many jobs are worth sacrificing rights given to us by our nation and state’s founders? Should we limit the right of free speech in an effort to grow jobs? Should we limit people’s ability to speak out against certain business groups because it supposedly creates an adverse business climate in Oklahoma?

    While I understand that politics may be gamesmanship, I personally believe that I have elected officials that should put aside the gamesmanship for serving. Not for furthering their political ambitions. Not for raising money for the next election cycle by appeasing big donors. But for doing what is right and best. I recognize this may seem altruistic but to Oklahomans, it should be principle.

  3. Mike Mc Neil says:
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    As I read through the comments and statements contained in this blog, as a Paralegal who no longer practices in any field, I cannot help but agree with Jeremy in part. While larry Parman brings up some relevant points, to HIS view, I realize that he does not care a whit about the average Oklahoma citizen. Not by his arguement here! Not once did I hear “I am concerned for the average Oklahoman”. That, in my opinion, is exactly what is wrong with Oklahoma Trial Lawyers in current times.
    While defending a percieved attack on Gov-Elect Mary Fallin is an admirable action, it still remains to be seen exactly how observant of the State and US Constitution she is going to be. Staffing her transition team with trial attorneys and big business cronies does not appear to be very conservative to me.
    The main reason that Mary Fallin got 60% of the vote in November was not necessarily because she was the better candidate. In a large part it was because Jari Askins was not a logical choice. Many Republican Legislators advocated voting for Ms Fallin simply in order to have a full compliment of elected officials from the REpublican Party. Time will tell whether We the People made a mistake or not.
    If it turns out that we did indeed make a mistake then the grass roots organizations will be seeking to replace her as soon as is possible! Take that to heart!