President Bush criticized Mississippi's civil justice system Wednesday and called for federal caps on lawsuit awards, saying "junk'' litigation hurts the state and nation.
In a broad-ranging speech before 2,000 in the Madison Central High School gymnasium, he talked about terrorism and homeland security and said he sympathized with people who lost jobs or money from investments with WorldCom.
The telecommunications company, based in nearby Clinton, last month filed the largest corporate bankruptcy in history. Bush said corporate wrongdoing led to betrayal of employees and stockholders.
"Here in Mississippi, you know what I'm talking about. You know what it means to be let down by shady corporate practices,'' said Bush, who recently signed legislation designed to sharpen corporate accountability.
During a nearly six-hour trip to Mississippi, his first as president, Bush helped raise money for U.S. Rep. Chip Pickering, R-Miss., who has been criticized for taking more campaign cash from WorldCom than any other member of Congress. Pickering has received more than $82,000 in WorldCom contributions over the years.
The president spoke at a $1,000-a-plate luncheon at the Hilton hotel in northeast Jackson for Pickering. He appeared at a separate, $25,000-a-ticket fund-raising event for the Mississippi Republican Party.
Bush thanked about 550 people at the luncheon for contributing time and money to Pickering, who faces U.S. Rep. Ronnie Shows, D-Miss., in a race that could help determine the balance of power in the House.
"It's important that you're represented by this good man,'' Bush said of Pickering. "He's what we call an up-and-coming. He's a star today. He's going to be a bigger star tomorrow.''
Shows and Pickering were tossed together after sluggish population growth cost Mississippi one of its five congressional seats.
Before speaking at Madison Central High, Bush met privately with a dozen doctors, patients, business leaders and a laid-off WorldCom employee to talk about the economy and Mississippi's civil justice system. The president said lawsuits are crippling small businesses and driving doctors from the state. Mississippi lawmakers are debating whether to change the system by capping damage awards or limiting where lawsuits can be filed.
Democratic Gov. Ronnie Musgrove says he will call a special legislative session on medical malpractice insurance late this summer. Bush said he does not want to limit actual damage awards but he wants Congress to cap non-economic damage awards at $250,000 because civil lawsuits are hurting doctors and small businesses.
"Here in Mississippi, you're learning a hard lesson. One of the biggest obstacles to growth is the lawsuit industry,'' Bush said. "That's one industry we don't want to see grow.''
In a written statement later, David Baria of Jackson, president of the Mississippi Trial Lawyers Association, said caps would only help corporations and insurance companies.
"I am sure the people who could afford to pay $25,000 to have tea and cookies with the president are very concerned about caps on damages, but the folks who couldn't afford to be in that room are the ones who are going to be hurt,'' Baria said.
Mark Dvorak, executive director of Mississippians for Economic Progress, was among those meeting with Bush to talk about lawsuits. He said he hopes the president's advocacy of civil justice changes will spur state legislators to make changes.
"He has made a call to our state leadership to correct the problem here at home,'' Dvorak said.
Bush lashed out at critics who say civil justice changes should be made by states, not the federal government.
"If you agree with me that these junk lawsuits run up the cost of medicine, then it becomes a federal issue when you realize all the dollars we spend on Medicare,'' Bush said. "It's a federal issue when you think about all money we spend on Medicaid to help people. It's a federal issue when you think about all the veterans' hospitals around the country.''
Shows was in the audience at Madison Central High School, where Pickering introduced the president on stage. As the president's entourage left for Pickering's fund-raising luncheon after the speech, Shows stayed in the gym and shook hands with potential voters. The Democratic congressman said he supports some civil justice changes but thinks capping non-economic damage awards would hurt most people.