Making history

by | February 23, 2005 12:00 am


The Georgia Historical Commission should erect one of those handsome brass markers on the grounds of Atlanta’s sprawling Northside Hospital to commemorate Feb. 16, 2005, as an important date in state government.

Consider what happened at Northside Hospital on that fateful day:

— Gov. Sonny Perdue chose the hospital venue for signing into law what some observers believe is the most far-reaching tort-reform statute in the land. It was the first bill enacted by the first Republican-controlled Legislature in modern times. That distinction alone qualifies the site and date for special attention.

— The bill signing also signified such a supreme irony that it ought to be listed in the Guinness Book of Records. The new tort reform law, substantially limiting medical malpractice litigation, was validated on the scene of two of the most egregious malpractice cases in memory.

At Northside Hospital, on the same day in August 1985, two unrelated male infants — “Antonio” and “Baby Doe” — were so severely burned in supposedly routine circumcision operations that both had to undergo radical surgery to repair the damage. One later underwent a sex-change operation. Both families recovered millions in damages from Northside medics. (Under provisions of the new law signed at the hospital, each child might have received a maximum of $350,000 for pain and suffering — plus the cost of restoring their bodies and reshaping their psyches.)

— The Georgia Civil Justice Reform Act (Senate Bill 5) stands as the high water mark for successfully lobbying of a state legislature by the insurance industry, the medical community and the state Chamber of Commerce. Never have trial lawyers been so badly beaten in the years-long tussle over tort reform. The mouthpieces lost every significant tort-reform proposal they offered. As a result, some practitioners of medical malpractice law may have to return to less lucrative pursuits. Victims of malpractice may have to resort to bell-ringing in front of Target stores to receive compensation for their injuries.

In retrospect, this triumph of Republican will on tort reform was inevitable. Over the years, trial lawyers had received too much bad press for filing outlandish cases and raking in unconscionable fees. In the public eye, doctors and hospitals had become the hounded victims of greedy attorneys. Whether the malpractice reform pendulum has swung too far remains to be seen.

The trial bar might have avoided extremism with a bit of self-policing and an improved public information program.

For instance, judges might have performed their sworn duty with more diligence, thus avoiding legislative action. The proliferation of trivial lawsuits and fantastic monetary awards can be traced, in part, to trial judges’ reluctance to rein in and even sanction overzealous and irrational lawyers.

The state bar also loathes penalizing attorneys who go astray. Much like physicians, lawyers are so clannish that true reform of their practices nearly always comes from the outside.

In any event, this fading legislative session is likely to be remembered — if it is remembered at all — for enacting a severe tort reform law and, on other issues, trying to institutionalize secrecy.

A year or two from now, neither item may look appealing on a career resume or re-election brochure.

There is still time, however, for this General Assembly to leave a lasting positive mark, which could eclipse its less stellar deeds.

Congressional redistricting is crying for reform. At the behest of Washington Republicans, the Georgia Legislature has decided to redo the state’s congressional districts.

Our state’s lawmakers have an opportunity to get it right this time. Instead of simply reversing the Democrats’ gerrymandering by invoking GOP gerrymandering, why not try something new, at least for Georgia?

As 12 other states have done, the Georgia Legislature could create a redistricting commission to remove some of the rank partisanship and politicking from the process.

Demographics indicate such a move offers no threat to growing GOP dominance. No matter how the state is sliced up, Republicans are sure to gain power — possibly as many as three or four additional congressional seats in addition to the seven they now hold.

So why not use this no-risk opportunity to let an impartial panel draw new districts in which maintaining the integrity of county lines and protecting common community interests become the most important ingredients? Perhaps incumbency should also be a factor. But, mainly, creating citizen-friendly maps (instead of placating political personalities) should drive the process.

If this legislative session moved in such a direction, it might be remembered in the same way as past General Assemblies that accomplished such feats as adopting basic education standards, approving the first sales tax and creating HOPE scholarships. Admittedly, such a change in course for these newly empowered lawmakers is unlikely. They have already made lasting marks for limiting the right to redress grievances and trying to cloud sunshine in government.—

You can reach Bill Shipp at P.O. Box 440755, Kennesaw, GA 30160 or e-mail:


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