Oklahoma House Override of Tort Reform Bill Veto Falls Short

By Tim Talley

Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry’s veto of legislation intended to make it tougher to file some lawsuits was sustained when House Democrats blocked a Republican-led override attempt.

House members voted 55-42 on a motion to override the governor’s veto, less than the two-thirds majority needed for it to become law without the governor’s signature. There are 44 Democrats and 57 Republicans in the 101-member House and 68 votes are needed to override a gubernatorial veto.

Afterward the vote, the measure’s author, Rep. Colby Schwartz, accused Democrats of supporting the trial lawyer lobby.

“This bill would have cleared the courts of frivolous lawsuits to make way for those with legitimate cases, but instead House Democrats voted today to keep our court system clogged with expensive lawsuits without merit,” Schwartz said.

Paul Sund, Henry’s communications director, said the governor commended House Democrats for sustaining the veto “and doing the right thing.”

The measure would have required injured people to obtain certificates of legal merit from experts in order to file professional malpractice lawsuits. Supporters said it would curb rising insurance and business costs by stopping frivolous lawsuits and cutting the cost of Oklahoma’s civil justice system.

In his veto message, Henry said the measure conflicts with an Oklahoma Supreme Court decision on a similar bill that the court found unconstitutional two years ago.

“In an 8-1 decision in 2006, the state’s highest court ruled that the cost associated with certificates of merit placed an undue financial burden on citizens seeking access to justice and served as a barrier to their constitutional rights,” the governor said.

“I support efforts to reduce frivolous lawsuits, but because the court has already spoken clearly on the certificate of merit issue, enacting this measure would have been a wasteful exercise in futility,” he said.

The measure overturned by the Supreme Court dealt exclusively with medical malpractice lawsuits. The one Henry vetoed expanded that to any professional service including physicians, attorneys and accountants.

Opponents have said the certificates would cost injured persons between $500 and $12,000.

Schwartz said it is the responsibility of the state’s courts, not the governor, to determine what is constitutional and what is not.

“The governor is not acting in the capacity of the governor,” he said. “He should allow the courts to determine what is constitutional and what is not constitutional.”

Rep. Dan Sullivan, R-Tulsa, said Henry has made campaign promises to change the state’s civil justice system but has consistently rejected lawsuit reform bills.

“The governor has made it clear that as long as he is in office, he will reject any and all reasonable lawsuit reform measures sent his way,” Sullivan said.

Copyright 2008 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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