by Walter K. Olson
St. Martin’s Press, 2002, 352 pp., $25.95
Democracy by Decree: What Happens When Courts Run Government
by Ross Sandler and David Schoenbrod
Yale University Press, 2002 256 pp $30
Poor McDonald’s. First, an elderly woman sues the company when she spills a cup of hot coffee. Then, the parents of overweight teenagers bring a federal case because their daughters ate too many Big Macs. Won’t anyone just let the fast-food giant sell Chicken McNuggets in peace?
It’s no wonder the company seems to have won the public’s sympathy. Stories of supposedly frivolous lawsuits fly from headline news to late-night television barbs, illustrating yet again an American legal system that lets greedy citizens make deep-pocket corporations pay for their own mistakes. Never mind that the teenagers’ case was dismissed, or that the woman who spilled her coffee actually suffered third-degree burns and permanent scarring over 16 percent of her body. Most of the facts don’t make the front pages, so even liberals tend to view our legal system as a repository for whiners’ complaints. This, even though the number of civil cases filed in the United States has been on the decline for the past decade.
But it’s no accident that so many believe otherwise. Billions of businesses’ dollars are at stake. Corporate-backed advocacy groups and conservative think tanks work hard to portray lawsuits against corporations as a symbol of a fundamental breakdown of American values. The Manhattan Institute, for example, has a special Center for Legal Policy dedicated to providing a pulpit for preaching this view.
Perhaps the best-known of these preachers is Walter K. Olson. Although not a lawyer himself, he’s made a remarkable career out of bashing the profession. A senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, he’s spread the word through newspaper editorials, magazine articles, a Web site-overlawyered.com-and now, his third book. In The Rule of Lawyers: How the New Litigation Elite Threatens America’s Rule of Law, Olson recasts the Dickensian view of shady lawyers lurking in the murky Court of Chancery into an image of modern-day trial lawyers who hungrily circle the corporate cookie jar, scheming up ways to get their hands in.
Olson isn’t targeting all lawyers, though. Indeed, he has nothing negative to say about the defenders of big business. Rather, his target is the far smaller group of “trial lawyers”-those who represent injured people challenging corporations. Presenting himself as a populist-the Rush Limbaugh or Bill O’Reilly of lega...
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