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Documents Reveal Bush Administration Top Priority: Exempt Big Business from Civil Justice System

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According to documents obtained through repeated FOIA requests by the American Association for Justice (AAJ), the Bush Administration’s attempt to shield big business and Wall Street from the free market date back long before the current bail out. Documents released by AAJ detail how helping corporations escape accountability for dangerous products by denying consumers their Seventh Amendment right to trial by jury and by abrogating the Republican party’s long-standing state’s rights principles has long been the administration’s top priority. People at the highest levels of the Bush administration repeatedly ordered federal agencies to usurp state law and undermine consumer protections.

The FOIA documents detail a Bush regulatory strategy called preemption. In short, the Bush administration has decided that federal rules should usurp – or preempt – the rights of states to protect their citizens with stricter safety standards. In turn, consumers can no longer use the state protections when harmed by negligence or misconduct, giving total immunity to negligent corporations.

AAJ has tracked how the administration’s first attempts to preempt states rights utilized friend-of-the-court briefs on behalf of corporations in civil justice cases. After only mixed success, the administration then shifted strategies, targeting instead regulatory agencies in charge of product safety oversight. I wrote about the Administration’s use of "preambles" to regulations and policy statements in final agency rules to effect back-door tort reform in an earlier blog about preemption. Beginning in 2005, statements claiming that federal agency rules preempt state law began surfacing in the preambles of regulation issued by the federal government, and in some cases in the body of the final rules themselves. Because the courts have not yet conclusively determined whether preambles carry the full weight of law, corporations have a new legal theory on which they can argue in product liability cases.

“Unelected federal regulators are now claiming that states can’t protect their own citizens with stronger consumer protections,” according to AAJ President Les Weisbrod. In an upcoming Supreme Court case, 47 state attorneys general filed a brief arguing the FDA is breaking with historical precedent. In fact, in their brief they urge the U.S. Supreme Court to uphold a Vermont Supreme Court ruling that state law forces a drug manufacturer to pay $6.8 million to a Diana Levine, whose arm had to be amputated after she was injected with an improperly-labeled Wyeth drug.

Since 2005, seven federal agencies have issued over 60 proposed or final rules with preemption language in the preamble. During the past year, AAJ submitted numerous FOIA requests that prove the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) had direct involvement in the placement of the “complete immunity” preemption language. In an earlier request, OMB responded that there were no documents. However, emails recently obtained from the individual agencies prove that OMB did indeed discuss preemption with agencies, and in some instances OMB officials wrote the language.

Given this discrepancy, AAJ submitted an expanded request for OMB documents. On September 26, 2008, OMB responded it had identified 146 documents, but refused to release any of them, saying that “the disclosure of these documents would not be in the public interest.”

In piecing together the emails from the FOIAs, AAJ uncovered the sleazy relationship between federal officials and the industries they regulate. For example, the pharmaceutical industry intensified its efforts to influence the FDA in the months leading up to the physician labeling rule’s release on January 24, 2006. Much of the lobbying efforts were aimed at Sheldon Bradshaw, who had succeeded Daniel Troy as FDA chief counsel in April 2005.

AAJ obtained emails that list attendees of a meeting between Bradshaw and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) revealing the FDA chief counsel met with legal representatives from Pfizer, Wyeth, Eli Lilly, Berlex, Organon, Abbott Laboratories, Takeda, Sanofi-Aventis, Serono, AstraZeneca, Cephalon, Millenium, Eisai, Amgen, Astellas, GlaxoSmithKline, Bristol Myers Squibb, Johnson & Johnson, Novartis, Merck, and 3M.

Less than six months after this meeting, the agency would release its final physician labeling rule with complete immunity preemption language in the preamble, a complete about-face from the language in the proposed rule that specifically said the agency did not intend to preempt state law with the rule.

Federal agencies like the FDA, the Consumer Protection Agency, the Centers for Disease Control, and the National Highway Transportation and Safety Administraion exist to protect tax paying citizens from dangerous food, drugs, vaccines, medical devices, consumer products and other products. The Bush Administration turned this regulatory scheme upside down by placing lobbyists for the industries the agencies were supposed to regulate in charge of those very agencies and then instructing its minions to write into the agencies’ preambles and final rules language preempting citizens’ Seventh Amendment rights to trial by jury in state courts.

It ain’t right!

Link to AAJ’s full report of this scandal, titled,“Get Out of Jail Free: A Historical Perspective of How the Bush Administration Helps Corporations Escape Accountability”.

View the Wall Street Journal’s article "Bush Legacy Could Be Found In Tort Reform" online.