White House looks to courts for gun, tobacco wins
WASHINGTON, Dec 12 (Reuters) - Having failed to get Congress to pass legislation on tobacco or guns, the Clinton administration has pinned its hopes on the courthouse.
To critics, the landmark lawsuits against tobacco companies and gun makers smacks of an end run around Congress, or a blatant effort to use the threat of a costly lawsuit to force two unpopular industries to do what the administration wants.
They say zealous federal prosecutors could next take aim at liquor companies, fatty foods, or similar products.
Robert Levey, a legal expert at the conservative Cato Institute, said that if he were a maker of alcoholic beverages, junk food, cars or sports equipment, if he ran an HMO or had a Y2K computer glitch in his business, ``I would begin to get very worried.''
Supporters of the gun and tobacco suits say they are a common-sense way for the federal government to use existing laws to right a wrong or protect people from harm.
``The question isn't why are they suing tobacco companies,'' said Matt Myer, an attorney who heads the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids. ``It's why didn't they do it earlier.''
The Department of Housing and Urban Development last week said it would sue on behalf of public housing authorities unless gun makers change marketing and distribution.
Two months earlier, the Justice Department filed a massive lawsuit accusing the tobacco industry of fraud and deceit, and seeking to recover billions the government spends each year treating Medicare patients with smoking-related illness.
It is easy to see why the Clinton administration would look beyond Congress to pursue his agenda on tobacco or guns.
Amid an industry advertising blitz, Congress rejected a sweeping tobacco bill in 1998. The industry has also taken the Food and Drug Administration to the Supreme Court to try to stop new tobacco regulations. A ruling is expected next year.
On guns, the Senate did pass new gun control legislation after the slaughter at Columbine High School in Colorado last April. But the National Rifle Association mobilized its considerable grassroots strength and a similar bill failed just a few weeks later in the House.
Turning to the courts does not necessarily mean abandoning efforts to pass legislation or beef up regulatory agencies. But it can sometimes be simpler, said Chris Foreman, an expert on regulatory policy at the Brookings Institution.
It may be easier to make a legal argument before a judge than to make a political argument for a majority of Congress, although many conservative opponents of President Clinton disagree.
``We just assume that the administration doesn't believe in democracy,'' said Jim Wootton, president of the Institute for Legal Reform at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
``The courts are part of a constitutional system and they have a specific role to play. But the legislative process is where our founders thought that these divisive issues would be settled, not by one judge or one jury,'' he added.
Lawyer-activists who have worked for gun control or campaigned against smoking say Clinton has every right, even every obligation, to try the judicial route if the legislative approach is not bearing fruit.
``The federal government uses the civil justice system all the time,'' said Josh Horwitz, who as executive director of the Educational Fund to End Handgun Violence has worked with several cities bringing suit against gunmakers.
``When people are dying, the administration has to do everything in its lawful power to protect them,'' Horwitz said.
Anti-smoking leader Myers said, ``The government is simply enforcing the law. If it is clear -- as it is -- that the Medicare program is being forced to pay out billions of dollars a year to pay for health care costs caused by the tobacco industry's products, the law anticipates that the government will seek to recover that money from the wrongdoers.''