The secretive corporate outfit behind ‘Stand Your Ground’

By Joanne Doroshow
April 13, 2012

For many years, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has been a particularly influential organization that has promoted the agenda of corporate America and the political right in state legislatures nationwide, but about which the public has known little. ALEC’s members, who work together to draft model bills, consist of state legislators, who pay little to join, and corporations and trade associations, who pay hefty membership fees. These fees purchase influence over ALEC’s agenda and access to lawmakers. Because ALEC’s issue-areas are quite broad – voter IDs, consumer protection, healthcare, education, the environment and guns, to name a few – not every ALEC bill connects to a particular company’s financial interests. Until now, associating with ALEC’s range of issues seems not to have been much of a problem for most companies, well worth the payoff of having their favored bills promoted. That’s why the stream of recent defections of some of ALEC’s highest-profile corporate members – McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Mars, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Intuit and Kraft – has been so extraordinary.

The principal trigger, of course, has been the taint surrounding ALEC’S “Stand Your Ground” laws, the statute at the heart of the controversy over George Zimmerman’s killing of Trayvon Martin. The business downside of associating with an organization pushing a law that seemingly turns a criminal perpetrator into a lawful executioner has apparently become too much for these companies, thanks to pressure from the civil rights and consumer community. That’s a good thing. But as we focus on Stand Your Ground laws, we shouldn’t lose sight of the breadth of ALEC’s damage around the country. In fact, some of the wider harm can be found in other parts of this very statute. This law does not just protect perpetrators. It is also a direct assault on crime victims themselves. Specifically, buried in ALEC’s Stand Your Ground laws – on the books in some form in about half the states in the U.S. – is a chilling measure that confers absolute civil immunity on perpetrators who successfully avoid arrest and prosecution under this law, stripping crime victims of their legal rights and access to the courts. This is important, because often in cases where the criminal justice system fails, families turn to the civil courts for help by bringing a civil suit against the perpetrators directly. This law blatantly tears away their constitutional rights.

In fact, preventing access to the civil courts for everyday Americans is a pervasive theme that runs through ALEC’s entire, corporate-backed agenda. ALEC has an entire division devoted just to preventing injured people from holding wrongdoers accountable in court. Its very active Civil Justice Task Force is co-chaired by Victor Schwartz, general counsel of the American Tort Reform Association, a corporate group seeking to limit the liability of its corporate members. The legislation generated by this task force has been nothing short of a gift to our nation’s most negligent companies, many of which have been successfully sued over and over for recklessly causing death and injury to their customers. In my conversation with the Florida Justice Association this week, I learned that Florida itself has over 18 such ALEC “tort reform” laws already on its books, with many more under consideration.

The problem with these laws is not only that they allow wrongdoers to escape accountability for what they do. They also discriminate on the basis of race, gender, age and income, issues not unlike those raised by the Travyon Martin case itself. For example, some ALEC bills target certain kinds of jury awards, specifically those that compensate for “non-economic” injuries like permanent disability, loss of a woman’s reproductive system, disfigurement, trauma, loss of a limb or blindness. When a bill passed Congress in 1996 that would make it more difficult to bring negligent product manufacturers to court (similar to various ALEC bills), President Bill Clinton vetoed the bill, stating that the legislation’s focus on non-economic damages was “especially unfair to senior citizens, women, children, who have few economic damages, and poor people.” In 2004, Representative John Conyers of Michigan, ranking Democrat on the U.S. House Judiciary Committee, issued a press statement titled, “Tort Reform Movement Has a Massively Disproportionate Impact on Minorities,” in which he stressed the harm that “restrictions on non-economic damages” were causing minorities.

Women are also disproportionately harmed by ALEC “tort” legislation. Some ALEC bills would go even further than federal bills and completely immunize the pharmaceutical industry for manufacturing unsafe drugs and medical devices, which they’ve brought to market under lax government rules. Michigan already has such a law, and ALEC-affiliated lawmakers have proposed this legislation in other states, like North Carolina. University of Buffalo law professor Lucinda Finley, who has written extensively about jury verdicts, found that: “Reproductive or sexual harm caused by drugs and medical devices has a highly disproportionate impact on women, because far more drugs and devices have been devised to control women’s fertility or bodily functions associated with sex and childbearing than have been devised for men.” History shows that many such drugs and devices were made safer only after women and their families filed lawsuits against those responsible. Immunizing the pharmaceutical industry means that women will no longer have any recourse. The same can certainly be said for the increasingly medicine-dependent senior citizen population.

These under-the-radar liability issues may not be garnering the same kind of public attention as some other ALEC priorities. But the concerns they raise are just as poignant. And they put at risk not only the rights of Trayvon Martin’s family but also those of every person living in this country.

PHOTO: George Zimmerman makes his first appearance on second degree murder charges in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin in courtroom J2 at the Seminole County Correctional Facility in Sanford, Florida, April 12, 2012. REUTERS/Gary W. Green/Pool

45 comments

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Bashing ALEC is now the rage, and good political fun. They also play the game, so by all means, pile on. But Secretive is pejorative and inaccurate. They’ve been around for a long time, and make their methods, means, and motives very public.

Posted by ARJTurgot2 | Report as abusive

I am so tired of the bag of skittles comments. The truth is a gun or a knife fits easily into a pocket and it is easy for people to say Travon was unarmed after he was dead and searched thorougly.

I live in Ohio where we have a duty to retreat unless it is your own home. That truly seems like a better standard. Pursuing trouble with a gun is problematic. That being said we still don’t know what happened in those final seconds and that is what counts and that is what determines if there was cause to shoot.

Bag of skittles means nothing. You can’t assume people have no weapon because the weapon is not in hand. We also don’t know if Trayvon tried to grab the gun in which case you have to shoot or be shot. Fianlly it is better to bu judged by 12 than carried by 6.

What we do know here is that regardless of the what the law allows it is not smart to go looking for trouble with a gun. However, it may be leagal in this case.

Posted by dantoledo1 | Report as abusive

@bobSmith,

Who are you to tell me to move? I was born here and this is my country. The American Constitution defines MY rights, not YOU.

I have NO intention to give up my right to a peaceful life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness so an ever increasing number of undisciplined sociopaths that feel entitled can snatch purses, rob, burgle, intimidate and kill at will to support unwise and unsustainable life style choices. I’ve also noticed that a lot of the “look like me”.

If you don’t live in Europe, I suggest YOU move there.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

ARJTurgot2 writes: “Bashing ALEC is now the rage, and good political fun. They also play the game, so by all means, pile on. But Secretive is pejorative and inaccurate. They’ve been around for a long time, and make their methods, means, and motives very public.”

The secrecy relates more to the member companies than to ALEC itself. This is not unique to ALEC, but no one is proud of having ALEC lobby for them. It’s kind of a dirty stigma. ‘Secretive’ is a fair adjective. I’ve seen stickers for the Nature Conservancy on the windows at Whole Foods. Or the World Wildlife Federation at Disney World. I don’t see ALEC stickers on the windows at McDonald’s. “ALEC Member since 2008.”

Not gonna happen.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

how much more guns & ammo will be sold for profiteering is what’s in place here, The money barons our connected!!

Posted by josephlogston | Report as abusive