Reformers Still Can Make a Difference
THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS
May 9, 1995, Tuesday, HOME FINAL EDITION
Dick Weekley looked anguished on the eve of his most important political
moment. Within 24 hours, the Texas House would consider four of the 11 tort
reform proposals the Houston businessman had been promoting, day in and day
out, for five months.
A look of concern, perhaps a tinge of panic, swept his angular face. The
developer had been pulled away from his late, late dinner, learning that a
high-level tort reform meeting was occurring with House leaders. He was not
included; trial lawyers were there. What did that mean?
As head of the new Texans for Lawsuit Reform, the property developer had
camped out in Austin since January, pushing here and there for liability
reform. Yet last week, on the evening before the big vote in the House, where trial
lawyers are ably represented, one could almost read his thoughts: Are these
reforms going to blow up?
As things turned out, the move to modernize Texas' tort laws _ which have
handsomely rewarded the plaintiff bar and which Gov. George W. Bush
campaigned against as a candidate _ did not blow up at the last minute. To the
The Weekley-Bush side persevered on Wednesday, winning House passage of
the four remaining tort pieces. (The Texas Senate already had passed several
Changes now will occur in the way defendants are held liable in
multiparty suits. Likewise, plaintiff lawyers will not be able to easily shop" for
friendly courts in which to file suits. And frivolous lawsuits will be
harder to file.
These reforms await some final minor work, but they are essentially
headed to Gov. Bush for his ready signature.
As Richard Weekley made his way back to his Austin hotel after last
week's House vote, the reedy 49-year-old businessman hardly looked like a strutting
reformer. Instead, his shy grin hinted of a kid who knows he's just hit a
big homer but who doesn't want the attention. He just wants to go home.
Why mention all this? Simple. In this anti-politics era, Dick Weekley's
presence makes a point: Reformers still matter.
Just as Ross Perot affected the 1992 elections, and the Rev. Jesse
Jackson shapes lives through politics, outsider Dick Weekley has affected this
session of the Legislature as much as anyone.
That point is worth noting because Mr. Weekley is a political neophyte.
He enlisted in the tort battle after getting fed up with the threat and reality
of liability lawsuits in Texas. (Mr. Weekley reportedly has been involved in
about a dozen cases, as both plaintiff and defendant.) Along with several others,
he formed Texans for Lawsuit Reform to battle a system they considered hostile.
Now, yes, other people also have played a huge role in the battle for
tort reform, a point Mr. Weekley quickly makes. Gov. Bush, for example, has been
central. So has Sen. David Sibley, a Waco Republican who chairs the
Economic Development Committee. Also factor in Rep. Rob Junell, D-San Angelo, who
stood in the well of the House Wednesday, patiently answering questions about this
and that technicality.
But Mr. Weekley's role cannot be underestimated. As Austin political
consultant George Christian says, his persistence blew open the door to the
safe" on tort reform. He created momentum, Mr. Christian says, when momentum
was about to run out of the six-year push to change Texas' expansive liability
Now, don't assume reformers are not also chastened by the process they
seek to shape. One Austin story has Mr. Weekley getting chewed out for
questioning a GOP senator's commitment to tort reform. The senator understandably felt
his sponsorship of nine tort reforms did not warrant Mr. Weekley's public
questioning of him.
Likewise, another pro-liability reform senator complained to me during
some earlier high-level tort negotiations that Richard Weekley was wielding a
blunt instrument when a stiletto was needed.
In other words, his intensity was hurting his own cause.
Indeed, some business reformers often are not wise as serpents.
They simply don't understand that lawmakers must reconcile democracy's
Nevertheless, be heartened that determined people like Richard Weekley
still matter, even if you don't agree with him.
While some people whine and take their political grievances to militia
fields or talk radio, the Texas businessman showed that individuals with desire can
Standing up for one's beliefs is a American tradition dating back to
Thomas Jefferson. Dick Weekley just gave it a modern look.
William McKenzie is an editorial writer and columnist for The Dallas
© Copyright 1995 The Dallas Morning News