Fed Courts Fear Workloads From Class-Action Reforms

Federal judges who would hear the majority of class action lawsuits (search) under a plan moving through Congress, told lawmakers two years ago that giving them thousands of new cases instead of letting state courts handle them could be a big burden.

Fifteen state attorneys general also told the Senate this week they oppose the legislation, saying it "would result in far more harm than good."

But the legislation seems to be on the fast track through Congress.

Under an agreement between the GOP-controlled House and Senate, if senators don't change the legislation, the House will pass it quickly and send it to President Bush to be signed.

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.

But 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 (search), 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 a decrease 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.

The bill could also reduce state attorneys general's power to sue, because they sometimes act as the class representative for consumers in their state, the attorneys general complained.

The legislation, if enacted, would interfere "with one means of protecting our citizens from unlawful actions," said the letter signed by attorneys general from California, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon, Vermont and West Virginia.

The Senate rejected, 60-39, an amendment by Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., that would have made state attorneys general's exempt from the legislation's restrictions.

The bill "does not impede any authority of any attorney general," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas and the state's former attorney general.