Reformers Still Can Make a Difference

William McKenzie
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 contrary.

The Weekley-Bush side persevered on Wednesday, winning House passage of the four remaining tort pieces. (The Texas Senate already had passed several liability reforms.)

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 laws.

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 competing voices.

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 create change.

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 Morning News.

© Copyright 1995 The Dallas Morning News