Brown's crusade another campaign in ongoing war

August 20, 2007 

The major — and now perhaps the only — issue hanging up the California budget has been a Republican demand that Attorney General Jerry Brown be blocked from suing local governments over global warming.

There are some hints of a compromise, but regardless of what happens, the budget stalemate has opened a new front in an old war that began when Brown became governor 32 years ago and is still raging as he returns to statewide politics as attorney general.

Business interests have been engaged in perpetual conflict with four liberal groups — labor unions, environmentalists, consumer activists and trial lawyers — over regulatory and economic issues, with countless billions of dollars at stake.

The war is fought in three venues — the Legislature, the ballot and the courts — by platoons of lawyers, lobbyists and political consultants. For the most part it has been a stalemate, but in recent years the business side has gained ground.

With the threat of an initiative, Gov. Schwarzenegger bulldozed the Legislature into overhauling workers compensation, a defeat for labor and lawyers. And voters passed a business-backed measure altering the rules that govern lawsuits over unfair business practices. Schwarzenegger, meanwhile, has vetoed virtually every bill labeled a "job killer" by business.

Brown sued one county, alleging that its general plan doesn't adequately address greenhouse gas emissions, and has pressured other local governments on zoning and transportation plans. Business interests see his crusade, if successful, as a new avenue to challenge development proposals.

As this battle plays itself out, the long-warring factions are arming for what could be an even bigger clash next year over dueling ballot measures dealing with class-action lawsuits, a tool often used by liberal groups against business.

Allen Zaremberg, president of the California Chamber of Commerce, and John Sullivan, head of the business-backed Civil Justice Association of California, have filed a measure to restrict such lawsuits, and Consumer Attorneys of California, the umbrella organization of plaintiffs' lawyers, has countered with three proposed ballot measures of its own. One would make some changes in classaction rules, one would strip corporate executives convicted of crimes of "illegitimate pay and investment income," and a third would subject executive pay to shareholder votes.

An Intel Corp. executive chairs Sullivan's group, and trial lawyers and their close allies, the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, have issued rhetorical blasts at Intel, tying support for the business measure to its allegedly racist ads — and reflecting the long-standing enmity between high-tech firms and lawyers who file class-action "strike suits" over stock prices.

Business strategists believe that with the ace "strike suit" lawyer William Lerach under federal investigation for his role, if any, in alleged kickbacks to class-action plaintiffs, they have some ammunition to depict lawyers as rapacious. Opponents will counter that class-action lawsuits are needed to curb dangerous, discriminatory and/or deceptive business practices, such as Erin Brockovich's storied pollution battle with Pacific Gas & Electric Co., although Brockovich's scorecard since then has been scant.

Selling those competing images to the voting public would consume tens of millions of dollars, but it's unclear whether the clash will occur, or whether it's just saber-rattling over business-backed legislation, now stalled by Democrats, that would change class-action lawsuit rules. If it happens, however, it could be the big-bucks ballot battle of the year, reminiscent of a costly, multimeasure battle between insurers and trial lawyers in 1988.

Walters' e-mail address is THE SACRAMENTO BEE

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