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THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release
July 30, 2000
REMARKS BY THE PRESIDENT
AT ANNUAL MEETING OF THE
ASSOCIATION OF TRIAL LAWYERS OF AMERICA
Hyatt Regency Hotel
3:25 P.M. CDT
THE PRESIDENT: President Middleton, after your remarks, if I had any
sense, I wouldn't say anything. I'd just sit down. (Laughter.) I want to
thank you, and thank you, Fred Baron, my longtime friend, for inviting me
here. There are so many of you here that I've had the honor of working
with over the last seven and a half years, sometimes even longer.
I am proud of the fact that this organization and its members have
been standing up for the rights of wronged and injured Americans since
1946. (Applause.) Now, that was before we had the EPA or the Consumer
Product Safety Commission, the Occupational Safety and Health
Administration, or the Clean Air or Clean Water Act. It's important to
remember that those protections and many others were written into the law
after years of lawsuits that highlighted the problems we faced and wrongs
that were done.
What is the lesson of all this? That the public interest requires
both reasonable access to the courts and responsible action by Congress.
We have done what we could in the last seven and a half years to move
toward accountability in the court on three issues -- tobacco, guns and
patients' rights -- and to keep the American people's availability of a
civil justice system alive and well. (Applause.)
But only Congress can pass laws that will hold tobacco companies, gun
manufacturers and health plans accountable for the choices they make and
the consequences of those choices. So I hope Congress will also help us
because I know that everybody in this room agrees that an ounce of
prevention in law is worth a million dollars in curative lawsuits.
We've worked for seven and a half years now to protect our children
from the dangers of tobacco, thanks in large measure to the leadership of
Vice President Gore and Senator Dick Durbin from Illinois, who has been
with me through much of this day. Now the Justice Department is leading
our efforts to get tobacco companies to repay the government for the costs
of tobacco-related illnesses. But the Supreme Court has told Congress the
ball is in its court; it must act to give FDA tobacco regulations the force
I have asked Congress to do that and to support, not undermine, the
Justice Department's lawsuit. I hope that the Congress, and especially the
Republicans in Congress, will be able to break an addiction to the tobacco
lobby and meet their responsibilities to the American people. (Applause.)
I am grateful beyond measure that the crime rate has dropped in this
country to a 25-year low, that gun crime is down by 35 percent over the
last seven and a half years, but I don't think anybody in America believes
that we're safe enough as a nation or that there's not more we can do --
more we can to do to put more police on the street in dangerous
neighborhoods; more we can do to keep our kids off the streets in
after-school programs, summer school programs, summer job programs,
mentoring programs; and more we can do to keep guns out the hands of
criminals and children.
I've asked Congress to give us common sense gun legislation --
measures to close the gun show loophole and the Brady background check law,
to require child safety locks for all handguns, to ban the importation of
large-capacity ammunition clips. I've also endorsed requiring people who
buy handguns to get a photo ID license, just like a driver's license,
showing that you passed the background check and you know how to use the
gun safely. So far, no action in Congress, even on the first three
We reached a historic agreement with the Smith & Wesson Company to
build safer guns, a truly astonishing step forward and a brave thing for
them to do. But the rest of the industry and the gun lobby are trying to
destroy them for doing it, and they're working hard to make sure that they
can't keep up their end of the bargain.
I hope all of them will think again about where their responsibility
really lies. After all, who honestly has an interest in selling a gun to
somebody with a criminal record? Who has an interest in selling a gun
that's not protected when it will be put in some place where a little child
can find it and cause an accidental death? I hope that we'll see a change
in attitude there, too, and I hope the American people will have the
opportunity to make their position on these matters crystal clear in
Wherever I go, I heard heartbreaking stories about patients turned
away from the closest emergency room. The other day I was in Missouri with
the Governor of that state who signed one of the strongest patients' bill
of rights in the country at the state level, and they still have about a
million people in their state who aren't covered because of the way the
federal law works.
And there was this emergency room nurse speaking with us there -- or
it was an emergency nurse who had been also an emergency medical
technician. It was a man who must have weighed 225 pounds and looked like
he could bench-press me on a cold day. And this big old burly guy got up
and practically started crying, talking about someone that he had just seen
die because they were not permitted to go to the nearest emergency room.
I had the guy the other day tell me a story about getting hit by a car
and saying that this health plan wouldn't approve his going to the nearest
emergency room because he hadn't called for permission first. He said, "I
was unconscious at the time. I didn't know how to make the phone call."
Now, all of you know these are -- if you practice in this area, you
know that this is not just some set of isolated anecdotes. And I believe
that health care decisions should be made by health care professionals. I
believe people ought to be able to go to the nearest emergency room. I
don't believe that people should be forced to change physicians in the
middle of treatment, whether it's chemotherapy or having a baby. And I
think if people get hurt they ought to have the right to seek redress in
our courts. That's what the patients' bill of rights does. (Applause.)
Let me say, as I have said over and over again, this is not a partisan
issue. Survey after survey after survey has shown that more than 70
percent of the American people, whether they identify themselves as
Republicans or Democrats or independents, support the passage of a strong,
enforceable patients' bill of rights. This is not a partisan issue; this
is a special interest issue.
We passed with a bipartisan vote -- a good number of Republicans voted
for a bill called the Norwood-Dingel bill in the House of Representatives,
and I am profoundly grateful to everyone who voted for that bill in both
parties. And then, in the Senate we came within a vote, really, of passing
it. We lost it 51-49, and if it had gotten 50 votes, then the Vice
President could have broken the tie. And as he never tires of saying,
whenever he votes, we win. (Laughter and applause.) He always kids me
that he has a much better record of legislative success than I do. He
never loses. Whenever he votes, we win.
And so I have some hope that we can do this. But this is a huge deal
and it goes to the core of what kind of people we are. And I feel that I
have the right to speak passionately about this because I actually have
always supported managed care in general. Let me remind you of something.
Your president was telling you about what things were like in 1992.
In 1992 and for several years before that, health care costs had been going
up at three times the rate of inflation. We were then and are now spending
about 4 percent more of our national income, which is a huge chunk of
change, on health care than any other country in the world; about 6 percent
more than virtually all other advanced countries -- Canada is 4 percent
lower than we are -- and yet we were the only one that basically had tens
of millions of people without any health insurance.
So it was obvious that we needed to manage the system better because a
lot of the money was just getting away from us. Having said that, you can
not allow the management of the system to overcome its fundamental purpose,
which is to help people get healthy, or stay healthy, or deal with them
when they're injured or sick. (Applause.)
Let me just emphasize, I've talked to a lot of people about this.
I've talked to a lot of nurses and doctors and people who work in insurance
companies. I've talked to the representatives of the 14 HMOs that endorsed
our patients' bill of rights -- because they desperately want to do this,
but they don't want to be disadvantaged by having all their competitors
able to run off and leave them and follow a different set of rules.
And the fundamental problem is in a lot of these cases, particularly
on specialist care, is that you have to go through three levels before a
final decision is made, and the people at the first two levels know they'll
never get in trouble for saying no. And whenever you have a system where
someone never gets in trouble for saying no and not get in trouble for
saying yes, even if yes is plainly the right answer, then there needs to be
some way people can get redress if they get hurt in a system like that.
That's the issue. (Applause.) So a right without a remedy is just a
suggestion. (Applause.) And I think we all know that.
So we've got to keep working. We might get there this year. We're
chipping away at it. If we turn one, or maybe two to be safe in the
Senate, we'll be home.
Now, let me just say one other thing. I couldn't appear before an
audience of lawyers without mentioning what I consider to be another threat
to our system of equal justice under law, and that is the Senate slowdown
in consideration and confirmation of my nominees to our courts, especially
to our appellate courts. (Applause.)
The judges I have appointed have the highest ratings the American Bar
Association has given out in 40 years. They are also the most diverse
group ever appointed to the Federal bench. (Applause.) We've shattered
the myth that diversity and quality don't go hand in hand.
I also have bent over backwards not to appoint people just because I
thought that every single ruling would agree with me. And I've probably
appointed a person or two that some of you didn't like. But I've tried to
find mainstream judges that would follow the Constitution and be faithful
to the interest of Individual litigants who have rights under the law and
Constitution of the United States, and to be fair and balanced to both
sides. That's what I have tried to do.
Now, it is, therefore -- (applause.) Because of that record, and
there have been lots of legal analyses by respected, totally nonpolitical
writers saying how I have changed the thrust of the court appointments,
especially appellate court appointments, and my appointees are far less
ideological, one way or the other, than those of the last two
administrations. Now, a blue ribbon panel, however, recently found that
during the 105th Congress, the nominations of women and minorities tended
to take two months longer to be considered than those of white males; and
though they were just as qualified, according to the ABA, they tended to be
rejected twice as often. I'll give you just exhibit A. I've talked about
this all over America.
I nominated a man named Enrique Moreno, a highly regarded trial lawyer
from El Paso, to the 5th Circuit. The Texas state judges said he was one
of the three best trial lawyers in the region. The ABA unanimously rated
him well qualified. He had broad support from local law enforcement
officials and from local Republicans and Democrats. Again, it was not a
partisan issue. The guy came up out of El Paso, went to Harvard, made
great grades, made something of himself. Everybody said he was qualified
-- everybody except the two senators from Texas who said he wasn't
qualified, no matter what the ABA said, no matter what the Texas state
judges said, no matter what the local Republicans and Democrats said, he's
not qualified. Nineteen years in practice isn't enough to qualify to make
the kind of judgments they have to make. And regrettably, none of the
other leading Republicans in Texas would even ask for him to have a
hearing. And so he sits in limbo.
Look at the Fourth Circuit in the Southeast United States. The
largest percentage of African Americans in any federal circuit are in the
Fourth Circuit; 25 percent of the judgeships are vacant. I've been trying
for seven years to put an African American on that court because there has
never been one in the district with the largest number of African Americans
in the entire country. I think it's wrong. (Applause.) And they have
worked so hard to keep me from doing it that they're willing to tolerate a
25 percent vacancy rate. (Applause.)
Now, keep in mind I never sent anybody up there that wasn't qualified.
We now have two fine well-qualified African Americans pending for that
circuit, Judge James Wynn of North Carolina and Roger Gregory of Virginia.
Neither has even gotten a hearing.
The Senate has 37 nominations before it now, and 29 of those folks
have never gotten a hearing. Fifteen have been nominated to fill empty
seats that the U.S. courts consider judicial emergencies, places where our
legal business simply isn't being done; 13 of them, including
well-respected litigators like Dolly Gee (phonetic) and first-rate jurists
like Lagrome Davis (phonetic) have been waiting more than a year. Judge
Helene White has been waiting for three years.
Now, if we want our courts to function properly, the Senate ought to
vote these folks up or down. If they don't like them, vote them down. But
is the question, can they be competent, will they run a fair and effective
court if there are criminal trials, will the civil cases be tried promptly
and fairly, do they believe justice delayed is justice denied, or is the
problem that they are not sufficiently ideological predictable?
This is a big issue and a serious precedent. We all want justice to
be blind, but we know when we have diversity in our courts, just as in
other aspects of our society, it sharpens our vision and makes us a
stronger nation. That is a goal ATLA has always set. (Applause.)
Now, I was told that no President had ever addressed the full ATLA
Convention before, and since you were born in the same year I was I thought
I'd show up. (Laughter and applause.) I thank you from the bottom of my
heart for the kindness so many of you have shown me, the support that so
many of you have given to our initiatives, to defending the civil courts
and defending the constitution. This is a year in which the American
people will be given a chance to chart the course of the future for a long
time to come. They'll elect a new President, a new Vice President,
senators and members of Congress. In the course of that, if all the
predictions are true, they will also be shaping a new Supreme Court because
the next President, in all probability, will make between two and four
appointments to the Supreme Court. Choices will be made and those choices
will have consequences.
I think it is very important that you make up your mind what you think
the choices are and what the consequences will be, and that you share them
with others. The last time a President, nearly as I can tell from my
research, talked to any ATLA group was when President Johnson appeared
before your board of directors in 1964. And so I want to tell you a little
story about 1964 to emphasize why I think this year is so important to all
of us as Americans.
In 1964, I graduated from high school, and I, therefore, have a very
clear recollection of that year. All of us were still profoundly sad over
the death of President Kennedy, but fundamentally optimistic. America was
then in the full flow of what was until now the longest economic expansion
in history. Vietnam had not yet blown up and no one really thought it
would get as big as it did, or claim as many lives as it did, or divide the
country the way it did.
There were -- then we had about 10 years of vigorous activism in civil
rights, but most people believed, given the White House and the composition
of the Congress, that the civil rights problems of this country would be
solved in the Congress and in the courts, not in the streets. And nearly
everybody thought the economy was on automatic and you couldn't mess it up
if you tried. We took low unemployment and high growth and low inflation
for granted. And I was one of those bright-eyed idealistic kids that felt
just that way.
Two years later we had riots in the streets. Four years later, when I
graduated from Georgetown, it was nine weeks after President Johnson said
he couldn't run for President again because the country was so divided over
Vietnam, eight weeks after Martin Luther King was killed in Memphis, two
days after Senator Kennedy was killed in Los Angeles. The next election
had a different outcome -- within a few months, the previous longest
economic expansion in history itself was history.
What's the point of all this? I don't know when we'll ever have a
time like this again, where we have so much economic prosperity and all the
social indicators from crime to welfare to teen pregnancy, you name it,
they're all going in the right direction; where our country is in a
position to be a force for peace and freedom and decency from the Middle
East to Northern Ireland to the Balkans to Africa and Latin America; where
we have the chance to build the future of our dreams for our children and
protect the fundamental essence of American citizenship and constitutional
liberty, even as we build a more united community amidst all of our
And I'm old enough now to know that nothing stays the same and things
change. And I say this to you more as a citizen than as a President,
because I'm not a candidate this year. But I think it is profoundly
important that the American people make up their mind what to do with this
moment -- this magic moment in our history. And I think we will not every
forgive ourselves if we let it get away from us.
In 1964, when LBJ came here, we let it get away from us. But the
problems were deep and imponderable and difficult to move away from -- the
problem of Vietnam and the problem of civil rights. We are not burdened to
the extent that time was by anything of that magnitude. But we know what's
coming down the pike. We know we have to deal with the retirement of the
baby boomers. We know we're not giving every kid in this country a
world-class education; we know that we have not done what we should do in
terms of safe streets and health care; we know we're going to have to deal
with the problems of climate change. We know this explosion in
biotechnology that the Human Genome Project exemplifies will change things
forever and require us to rethink our whole notion of health and
retirement. We know that we have responsibilities to people around the
world if we want Americans to do as well as they can at home.
And at the core of it all is what is our fundamental notion about what
it means to be a citizen of this country -- to have rights in the courts
and on the streets and in our daily lives, yes; but also to have
responsibilities to one another and to our country and to the future.
I want you all to think about that. I've done everything I knew to
turn this country around, to try to get things going in the right
direction. And now all the great stuff is still out there just waiting for
us to build a future of our dreams for our kids. That's all that matters
-- not the politics, not the injuries, not the hurts, not the barbs, not
the bragging, not the plaudits.
There's an old Italian proverb that says, after the game, the king and
the pawn go back into the same box. It's well to remember. All we really
have is our common humanity. But once in a great long while, we get an
unbelievable opportunity to make the most of it. You've got it now, and I
hope you will.
Thank you and God bless you. (Applause.)
END 3:45 P.M. CDT
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