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Look Who's Feeding The Litigation Fire


Government: LAWSUITS

LOOK WHO'S FEEDING THE LITIGATION FIRE

No sooner had President Clinton announced an executive order banning striker replacements for federal contractors last March than Stephen A. Bokat got an urgent call from lawyers for Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. The attorneys for the tiremaker, then in the midst of a bitter strike, wanted to know if Bokat, general counsel of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, would file a suit challenging the executive order.

For Bokat, the decision was easy. He had just finished meeting with outraged business lobbyists who had defeated a striker-replacement ban in Congress. "The issue was tailor-made for us," he says. "Everyone thought it was a cheap shot from the President." Within a week, the chamber had filed a lawsuit seeking to block Clinton's order.

TAKING ON NADER. What a turnabout: The very trade association of Corporate America that for years has sought tort reform to keep claimants out of the courtroom is now lobbing lawsuits in record numbers. Content during the Reagan and Bush eras to file friend-of-the-court briefs from the sidelines to bolster members' lawsuits, chamber lawyers have been roused to action by the Clinton Administration. The group's recent litigation is a "response to the President's regulatory agenda," explains Bokat. "Who's sitting in the White House is a primary motivator."

The National Chamber Litigation Center was founded in 1977 as a response to the public-interest litigation groups formed years earlier by Ralph Nader's consumer advocates. But its voice hasn't been a loud one. With an annual budget of roughly $500,000, the chamber's three-lawyer team has filed only about 25 lawsuits--mostly Carter Administration-era battles against worker-safety and workplace-discrimination regulations--and 120 friend-of-the-court briefs in those 18 years.

But lately, the pace is quickening. The chamber has five pending lawsuits challenging labor and environmental rules at the state and federal levels, a record case load. A July 31 federal court ruling on the chamber's striker-replacement suit upheld Clinton's order, but blocked its implementation because it could rob companies of a key lever in collective bargaining negotiations. The chamber has since filed an appeal challenging the legality of the President's ban. But it faces an uphill battle, since courts generally give the Oval Office wide leeway in issuing executive orders.

In addition, the chamber and other groups early this year asked a federal appeals court in Washington to declare an Interior Dept. Superfund rule overly punitive. And teaming up with other groups, it forced a settlement requiring the Environmental Protection Agency to issue less-intrusive hazardous-waste rules by December.

The chamber even scored a recent win against its other nemesis: the state of California. On Aug. 24, the federal appeals court in San Francisco struck down a Contra Costa County ordinance requiring employers to pay county-set wages on private construction projects. The court agreed with chamber lawyers that mandating government-imposed wage rates violates the collective-bargaining rights of private employers and workers under the National Labor Relations Act.

Meanwhile, the chamber and other trade groups are fighting California's green-marketing statute. The law imposes advertising restrictions on companies claiming their products are environmentally safe or recyclable. But opponents say the rules are so broadly written they often prevent information beyond the most basic statements, say, Del Monte ads explaining the recycling virtues of tin cans. In July, the chamber asked the U.S. Supreme Court to decide whether the restrictions trample on commercial-speech rights.

CRUSADERS. Private companies seek the chamber's imprimatur to give seemingly parochial complaints greater weight--and in some cases, to find political cover. "We picked the chamber because it's a broad-based organization," says Don Groninger, general counsel at Nashville-based Bridgestone/Firestone. The striker-replacement ban "impacts a lot of industries besides ours." But labor contends that the chamber does little to help companies advance their cause. "They're just another voice without much more to say," says one lawyer involved in the striker-replacement case. "Management already has top-drawer lawyers and doesn't need outside legal help."

Nonetheless, the corporate community likes their trade group's new crusading style. The chamber has "some of the few lawyers that remember their oath to protect everybody's rights," says William A. Stone, chief executive of Kentucky-based Louisville Plate Glass Co., a nonunion shop that once used striker replacements. As long as there's a pro-regulation President in the White House, Bokat's lawyers will keep their guns aimed and ready.By Catherine Yang in Washington


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