Referendums Block Tax Increases, Trim Property Rights, Enrich Lawyers

In Oregon, voters rejected a ballot initiative that would have created a permanent state health-care program financed by a major cigarette tax increase (which would probably not be enough to pay for the program in the future). They also cut back on a prior referendum that expanded property rights against regulatory takings (some say that the property rights protections provided by the earlier referendum have been gutted by the new one).

In Washington, voters passed a trial-lawyer backed initiative that will make it more profitable to file frivolous lawsuits against insurance companies, and provide for treble damages. Washington State’s liberal supreme court has cost it its once business-friendly reputation. (It recently upheld a million-dollar damage award to a dentist who sued his insurance company for millions for not coming to his defense when he was caught assaulting an anesthetized patient). Where Washington courts were once known for their skepticism towards punitive damages, that skepticism is declining, and they are increasingly willing to award lottery-sized emotional distress damage awards based on minor injuries.

In Kentucky, voters chose a close ally of the trial lawyers, Jack Conway, to be their next attorney general. He has promised to continue to sue out-of-state pharmaceutical companies. In Mississippi, attorney general Jim Hood, who is embroiled in an ethics controversy over his handling of insurance cases (leading to a court injunction against him), was reelected, although the state’s conservative governor, Haley Barbour, who pushed through tort reform, was handily reelected, defeating a sanctimonious trial lawyer, and the GOP candidate won the insurance commissioner’s race. In Pennsylvania, two trial-lawyer backed candidates won open seats on the Pennsylvania Supreme court.