Put a Brake on Government Lawsuits

Government Lawsuits Bypass Elected Representatives and Aren’t the Best Way to Solve Social Problems

We have news of perhaps America’s silliest lawsuit.

One branch of the federal government has fined another branch, and a lawsuit over it went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

I don’t know if this is a commentary on our legal system gone berserk or the size of our government run amuck, but something is out of kilter.

Both of these agencies report to the president. So couldn’t the “good” agency simply tattle on the “bad” agency?

We could save a lot of tax dollars that way.

In this case, West v. Gibson, a male accountant claimed the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs had discriminated against him on account of his gender. The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) agreed with the accountant and ordered the Veterans Department to promote him and give him back pay. When the Veterans Department did not comply with the EEOC’s directive immediately, the accountant sued.

The case was then heard by a federal court, which ruled against the accountant on administrative grounds, then appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, which held that the EEOC could not impose damage claims against other federal departments, and then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which disagreed, in a 5-4 decision, with the Seventh Circuit.1

So the accountant wins, but he’s probably getting less money than the government spent fighting over the issue.

Next time you look at your pay stub, remember that the government is using part of your taxes to sue itself.


Governments Let Criminals Off Easy, Yet Sue Gun Makers Over CrimeThis brings to mind other governmental lawsuits that aren’t any saner. For instance, big cities suing gun manufacturers, blaming them for gun crime, while government officials too often let criminals off easy.

According to analyst Morgan O. Reynolds of the National Center for Policy Analysis and Texas A&M University, for every incident of murder in the U.S., the murderer can expect to serve only 32.4 months in prison. This figure takes into account the odds that the killer is caught, prosecuted, convicted and serves time.

For rape, says Reynolds, the expected punishment is 116 days, and for robbery it is 46 days.2

Surveys show that 60 percent or more of released prisoners are rearrested within three years.3

As long as criminals don’t expect long sentences, they’ll continue to commit crimes. Suing gun makers won’t help.

What will our esteemed politicians do once the guns are gone? Sue knife makers?

If you think that’s ludicrous, be aware that Britain’s Labour government now has plans for knife registration.4 Although guns are less plentiful in Britain compared to the U.S., crime is still high. But the blame-the-weapon-not-the-criminal mentality states that, if getting guns off the street doesn’t solve a crime problem, then it’s logical to go after the knives.

Can anti-knife lawsuits in the United States be but a few years away?


A Federal Lawsuit to Recover Tobacco Losses is Groundless As Government Profits from TobaccoAnother crazy government lawsuit is President Clinton’s proposed suit against tobacco companies to get a reimbursement of federal moneys supposedly lost due to tobacco’s health effects.

But the President never mentions that government makes more money from tobacco than it loses.

Government averages 53 cents in taxes per pack of cigarettes sold,5 and, since smokers have an 18 to 36 percent chance of dying early, they use less nursing home facilities and Social Security and Medicare benefits.

In a 1997 analysis, Professor W. Kip Viscusi, then the director of Harvard Law School’s Program on Empirical Legal Studies, concluded that government saves 32 cents for every pack of cigarettes sold. When taxes are included, every pack of cigarettes saves 85 cents.6

 It is Not the Place of Courts to Direct the Legalization, Regulation & Taxation of Consumer ProductsWe need to be realistic about tobacco, alcohol, premium ice cream and other popular consumer products that aren’t good for us. Lawsuits aren’t the way to go. If the product is dangerous enough, we should ban it. If we decide not to ban it, but want to deter public use, then we can tax it and warn the public. After that, it’s up to individuals to make their own choices. That’s what freedom is all about.

All 50 state legislatures and the U.S. Congress seem to share my view, but a bunch of attorneys general and trial lawyers don’t think the people’s representatives should have the final say about the legalization, regulation and taxation of consumer products. They think they know better.

Fifty state attorneys general met recently in Nashville to decide which private industry the states should sue next.7 Just as they did with tobacco, they want to once again bypass Congress and state legislatures and make public policy themselves.

These lawyers want to be a self-appointed new branch of government that we don’t need. Legislators are more responsive to public opinion than are people who sue for a living, and, unlike trial lawyers, legislators don’t make millions if their opinion carries the day.

In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. Trial lawyers don’t ask the public’s opinion before they file suits that can raise taxes or drive legal products from store shelves. One of the good guys, Texas Attorney General John Cornyn, says “we should not be making social change and establishing public policy through the courthouse instead of the statehouse.”8 He’s right.


Amy Ridenour is vice president of The National Center for Public Policy Research. Comments may be sent to [email protected].


Footnotes:1 Marcia Coyle, “EEOC Can Fine Other Federal Agencies: West v. Gibson,” Law News Network, June 14, 1999, downloaded July 9, 1999 from http://www.lawnewsnet.com/stories/A2330-1999Jun14.html.

2 Morgan O. Reynolds, “Crime is Down Because Punishment is Up,” National Center for Policy Analysis Brief Analysis No. 247, November 17, 1997.

3 Morgon O. Reynolds, “Crime and Punishment in America,” National Center for Policy Analysis Policy Report No. 193, June 1995.

4 David Bamber, “Knife Sale Records to Curb Crime,” The London Telegraph, July 4, 1999.

5 W. Kip. Viscusi, “From Cash Crop to Cash Cow, How Tobacco Profits State Governments,” Regulation, Summer 1997.

6 Viscusi.

7 Mark Curriden, “State Attorneys General Meet to Discuss New Targets,” Dallas Morning News, Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News, July 10, 1999.

8 Mark Curriden, “Republican AG Group Creates Friction: Stated Goal is to Battle Trend of Making Policy Via Litigation,” Dallas Morning News, July 10, 1999.

The National Center for Public Policy Research is a communications and research foundation supportive of a strong national defense and dedicated to providing free market solutions to today’s public policy problems. We believe that the principles of a free market, individual liberty and personal responsibility provide the greatest hope for meeting the challenges facing America in the 21st century.