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Measure would punish attorneys for filing frivolous lawsuits

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Lawyers could lose their licenses for a year for repeatedly filing frivolous lawsuits under a bill headed for passage in the House as part of the Republicans' drive to crack down on what they consider costly abuses of the legal system.

Supporters say such suits, deemed baseless by a judge for flimsy facts or faulty interpretations of the law, are a waste of court time and mostly a bonanza for lawyers _ rather than a chance to recoup legitimate damages for their clients.

Insurance premiums and health care costs have risen as a result, according to Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, the bill's sponsor.

``All they want is for the defendant to settle,'' Smith, in remarks prepared for Thursday's debate, said of the lawyers for these plaintiffs. ``This is legalized extortion.''

Opponents say frivolous lawsuits have no tangible effect on insurance premiums. Some, like Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., argue the bill could deter legitimate labor, environmental or discrimination lawsuits.

``The Republican leadership doesn't care much about these issues,'' Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass., said as the House debate opened.

The American Bar Association says the measure would infringe on states' rights by setting policy in state as well as federal courts.

The bill passed the House last year 229-174 but has never come up for a vote in the Senate. An end-of-year crush of spending bills, Harriet Miers' Supreme Court nomination and other matters also make a Senate vote unlikely this year.

Smith's bill, which has 57 co-sponsors, would reinstate a pre-1993 rule setting mandatory penalties against lawyers who file frivolous suits. It would suspend for a year lawyers who file three baseless claims in any judicial circuit during their careers.

The Judicial Conference of the United States, which sets policy for the federal judiciary, opposed the bill. The conference said it would return the courts to a system that required penalties for every violation of the rule and ``spawned thousands of court decisions and generated widespread criticism.''

Currently, it is up to the judge to decide whether to pursue penalties.

Smith's bill is the third measure in a campaign by Republicans against what they consider civil justice abuses. It comes up a day after President Bush signed a bill into law that will protect the gun industry from lawsuits. The House also passed a bill to bar suits by people who blame their obesity on a food company's fattening products, but a similar House bill did not get a Senate vote last year.

The lawsuit bill is ``another prime opportunity to pass meaningful legislation to strengthen our court system,'' Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga., said on the House floor.
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