Editorial: Courageous vote stops misguided class action bill

Congratulations to Scappoose Democrat Sen. Betsy Johnson for blocking misguided legislative action on class-action suits.

The dominant narrative of bad-guy corporations versus good-guy Legal Aid has oversimplified a complex issue and very nearly led to passage of a bill before its consequences were sufficiently explored.

Under existing law, companies found at fault in class-action lawsuits get to keep money not claimed by those entitled to it. House Bill 4143 would have redirected those funds to support Legal Aid, which provides legal services to the poor.

Proponents painted the issue as one about fairness and justice, saying that returning the funds to the corporations was like giving a burglar stolen goods because you couldn’t find the original owner. They cited the fact that 48 other states direct leftover class-action funds to some public use.

What they didn’t address are the details in HB 4143 that raise constitutional questions and are different from provisions in those 48 other states. When former Oregon Attorney General Dave Frohnmayer raised those issues, they were dismissed because he represents companies that might be affected.

While that potential bias is certainly worth noting, it doesn’t answer the complex questions about statutory and constitutional safeguards that the bill would affect and its other possible consequences for class-action litigation.

Last week, Johnson broke with her party to vote against the bill, leaving the vote at 15-15, which effectively killed it. It was a particularly courageous action given the highly partisan nature of the debate. Republicans accused Democrats of political grandstanding in preparation for the fall elections, while Democrats painted Republicans as caring more about rich corporations than poor people who need legal representation.

No doubt Legal Aid needs support. But the answer shouldn’t be found by rushing complex legislation through during the short legislative session. A more thorough look at the issues can now proceed, thanks to Johnson’s vote.