REFORM of America's tort system has become a rather improbable issue in the presidential campaign.
In legal jargon, torts are injuries caused usually by someone's negligence. Lawsuits by injured persons against motorists, the manufacturers of defective products, and doctors are big business in American courts.
But critics of the system contend that "frivolous" lawsuits clog the courts. Worse, they say, the large costs to actual or potential defendants impair America's business competitiveness. These costs include not only money paid to compensate people for actual injuries, but also money paid for sometimes ethereal "pain and suffering," punitive damages, liability-insurance premiums, and preventive costs such as unnecessary medical tests intended solely to avoid malpractice suits.
Noting that much of the money that flows through the tort system ends up in lawyers' pockets, critics say the system is designed primarily to enrich attorneys.
President Bush and Vice President Quayle have latched onto legal reform as an issue. Both Republican candidates talked about it in their convention speeches and in their debates this week. Last year Mr. Quayle boldly called for extensive legal reforms in an ill-received address to the American Bar Association.
Quayle says the Democrats duck the issue because Bill Clinton is "in the pocket of the trial lawyers." It's true that trial lawyers are among the largest interest-group contributors to the Clinton war chest.
Critics of the civil-justice system make some good points. Many jury awards for "pain and suffering" seem excessive. Punitive damages - intended not to compensate victims of negligence but rather to deter future wrongdoing - are a hit-and-miss way to achieve a social goal; and why should individual claimants, instead of the system, get to keep punitive-damages windfalls? Perhaps it has become too easy to file suits (though most truly meritless suits get tossed out quickly). And, yes, fear of lawsuits pro bably spawns some inefficient practices by manufacturers and physicians.
At the same time, many of the criticisms are overblown. Without the much-denounced "contingency fees" charged by trial lawyers, many poor victims of injury couldn't afford to pursue legitimate claims. And estimates of the tort system's anticompetitive effects seem to be wildly inflated.
Unquestionably some legal reforms are needed, but these generally must occur at the state, not the federal level. The issue is an odd one to find in a presidential election. In Bush/Quayle hands, it looks primarily like lawyer bashing - something always good for ersatz populist appeal.