Philip Howard doesn't want to kill all the lawyers. He's one of them. But he does want to pull back the suffocating effects of too many lawsuits.
His new book, "Life Without Lawyers," attracted the attention of Gov. Mitch Daniels. The governor had read some of Howard's earlier books on how the fear of lawsuits has a corrosive influence in American society.
The fear has kept teachers from exercising common sense in disciplining students. It also has introduced mountains of paperwork and procedures for doctors and nurses, driving up the cost of health care.
Daniels was impressed enough with the book to assign it to top leaders in state government. He also hosted a recent dinner for the author, a gathering that included business leader Al Hubbard and civic leader and Indianapolis Business Journal owner Michael Maurer.
Howard thinks that litigiousness impairs productivity as well as leadership. "Society needs red lights and green lights," he said in an interview. "One jury will decide it one way and another jury will decide it another way. We need to rebuild stable authority structures."
He also blames the 1960s emphasis on personal rights. "What you can sue for establishes the boundary of everyone else's freedom," he says. Insurance companies, studying patterns of lawsuits, have banned everything from diving boards to see-saws on playgrounds. "Broward County, Florida, banned running at recess," he said. "They had 189 legal claims in five prior years. It just scares people. People want to be able to rely on their common sense."
Remedies are not as easy to grasp as the problem. Howard wants to change thinking rather than adopt legal reforms by Congress or state legislatures. He started an organization called Common Good, with help from former U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley, a Democrat, and former New Jersey Gov. Tom Kean, a Republican.
In Indiana, Daniels, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett and Attorney General Greg Zoeller have tackled part of the problem with their push to give teachers immunity from lawsuits when disciplining unruly students.
A local lawyer and certified public accountant, Rob Wingerter of Ernst and Young, sees the problem as a veteran member of the Zionsville School Board. "We need to get back to a principles-based legal base, instead of a rules-based system," he says. "You shouldn't try to create a legislative network that comes up with a rule for every possible conflict. It only adds complexity that drives people to the court system."
One step in the right direction, Howard said, is for judges to toss out frivolous lawsuits more promptly. But even that can be tricky, because higher courts might not agree.
That's one reason why Supreme Court judicial nominations have become so controversial. Too many of our major social controversies wind up in court instead of being settled by the elected branches of government.
(Russell B. Pulliam, journalist, book author, associate editor and columnist at The Indianapolis Star, is a syndicated columnist, whose columns focus on topics ranging from politics to social issues to family life. He may be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.)