Special Session Could Be Another Long One

Barely rested from a four-month session that ended 10 days ago, lawmakers trudge back to the Capitol Wednesday to rekindle debate on two contentious topics. Voter identification and lawsuit limitations.

Republican Gov. Haley Barbour called legislators back for a special session dealing with two of the top issues he campaigned on last year. But once legislators are back in town, they control the timetable and there's little the governor can do to send them home.

The session starts at 1 p.m. Wednesday, and it could be a long one, based on interviews with key committee chairmen.

Bills to change where civil lawsuits can be filed and how much can be awarded will go through the Judiciary A committees in the House and Senate.

Senate Judiciary A Chairman Charlie Ross, R-Brandon, says it's important to pass a bill that sets a $250,000 cap on non-economic damages for things such as pain and suffering.

House Judiciary A Chairman Ed Blackmon, D-Canton, says he adamantly opposes caps and he won't change his mind.

"On the issue of caps - just think of a snowball in hell,'' Blackmon said in an interview Tuesday.

During the regular session, the Senate voted for a bill that includes the $250,000 pain-and-suffering cap. A similar bill never came up for a vote of the full House after Blackmon opted not to bring it up.

Every chairman has the power to decide whether to bring bills up for debate of the full chamber, and Blackmon said he was willing to bring up a bill that included several other changes, but not caps.

Ross said Tuesday: "The Senate voted overwhelmingly for caps. The House of Representatives needs to vote on the issue.''

Barbour has said he wants caps as part of a larger package of changes to the civil justice system. He said limiting what he calls "lawsuit abuse'' will improve Mississippi's economic environment.

Many of Barbour's top campaign donors last year, including business groups and doctors, have called for changes in the civil justice system.

"I am confident that comprehensive tort reform is favored by a majority of the House and a majority of the Senate,'' Barbour said last week. "And I believe that the will of the majority will prevail, and we'll have comprehensive tort reform and I hope we'll have it in a few days. Whether it will contain every provision that I favor remains to be seen.''

Trial lawyers and other opponents to major civil-justice changes say pain-and-suffering caps and other changes could limit people's ability to be compensated if they're hurt by faulty products.

Blackmon, a lawyer who has represented plaintiffs and corporate defendants, said a $250,000 cap on non-economic damages would disproportionately hurt people without regular paychecks - children, homemakers and retirees.

"All it's going to do is increase the profit margin of already wealthy corporate conglomerates,'' Blackmon said.

Ross, a lawyer who often represents corporate clients, said perceptions of problems in the civil justice system are hurting the credibility of Mississippi's courts.

"When the credibility of a major branch of government is at stake ... I think it's important that the Legislature address the issue,'' Ross said.

Lawmakers were in special session 83 days in the fall of 2002, after then-Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, a Democrat, called them back to deal with civil justice changes. Laws that passed during that session took effect in January 2003.

They limited damages for pain and suffering to $500,000 in medical malpractice cases, and capped punitive damages against businesses at $20 million or no more than 4 percent of net worth.

Barbour, who defeated Musgrove last November, called those changes "inadequate.''

Voter identification has been another divisive issue at the Capitol for years. Barbour and other supporters say requiring people to show a driver's license or other ID will bring integrity to elections.

Opponents say ID could be used to intimidate older black voters who once had to pay poll taxes.

During the session that just ended, the House passed an ID bill that said anyone born before 1940 would not have to prove who they are. Barbour said that's not acceptable.

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)