Guardians of the Tennessee Constitution


September 30, 2016 10:38AM

Followers of Beacon will remember that we have long been involved in the efforts to set reasonable limits on the version of casino-style justice that American tort law has become. In 2011, Beacon was part of a large coalition that helped secure caps on the ability of plaintiffs’ lawyers to recoup exorbitant sums from juries in the form of punitive damages. This has led to a more fair and predictable legal system, strengthening our economy, while still preserving the ability of plaintiffs’ themselves to recoup economic damages for injuries they actually incurred. Right away, trial lawyers challenged this in the courts. As I wrote last year, at least one judge determined that the caps were unconstitutional because they violated the ancient Tennessee right to trial by jury. This was a travesty of constitutional law. That judge was later reversed, but the challenges continued. If nothing else, it shows how fragile these victories really are.

We took action. Continuing the fight from the legislature to the courtroom, we participated in a combined effort to make sure that not just the caps, but also the Tennessee Constitution, were not destroyed so the cash could continue to flow to trial lawyers’ pockets. The next round went to Beacon.

Yesterday, a federal judge in Memphis upheld the integrity of the Tennessee Constitution by rejecting the idea that somehow the pioneers who wrote the thing in 1796 were so concerned about protecting the interests of trial lawyers that they meant to enshrine those protections alongside free speech and freedom of worship.

The judge’s opinions showed how important our efforts were. Even though we were not one of the named parties, and the Tennessee Attorney General likewise filed a brief, the judge singled out our amicus brief on two occasions. Judges don’t always read these “friend of the court” type briefs, let alone cite them. Clearly, he read and liked what we had to say. The judge here actually went so far as to quote us twice.

We got involved because we thought we had a unique perspective. In particular, we see ourselves as something of a guardian for the Tennessee Constitution. We work very hard to have a deep understanding of it. So our brief was an effort to bring a historical evidence of the concerns of the actual Tennesseans who wrote the Constitution. It was not to turn our courtrooms into ATMs. Glad to see the judge agrees.

When we launched our Legal Foundation, one of our goals was to preserve our gains, preventing big government and anti-freedom forces from undermining our policy victories in the courts. This week’s ruling shows that we cannot only win in the legislature, but that we can successfully defend those gains on the backend.