House Passes GOP Bill That Could Curb Civil Rights Lawsuits

| Mon Nov. 18, 2013 7:00 AM EST

Last week, the House passed a GOP bill that would slap fines on people who file "frivolous lawsuits"—like that one against the Weather Channel for failing to predict a storm. Except that the bill could also discourage Americans from filing civil rights lawsuits, according to Democrats who oppose the bill.

The Lawsuit Abuse Reduction Act, which was introduced by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), passed the House 228 to 195, with only three Democrats voting in favor. It would require courts to fine attorneys for bringing suits that are intended to harass the defendant, or whose claims are not based on fact or existing law, or are not backed by a legitimate argument for establishing new law.

"Lawsuit abuse is common in America because the lawyers who bring these frivolous cases have everything to gain and nothing to lose," Smith said when the bill passed. He and fellow Republicans say that frivolous lawsuits waste thousands of court hours and cost companies billions of dollars each year.

But Democrats say the bill would have dangerous side effects. Smiths' bill could also make it harder for people to successfully bring civil rights lawsuits, they say, because these cases often hinge on new types of legal issues—such as transgender rights—making them more vulnerable to being shot down as invalid by a court. (Earlier this month, House Speaker John Boehner called discrimination lawsuits brought by LGBT individuals "frivolous".) Victims of discrimination may be less likely to file suit if they know they could be penalized for doing so.

The bill "will turn the clock back to a time when federal rules of civil procedure discouraged civil rights cases [and] limited judicial discretion," House judiciary committee ranking member John Conyers (D-Mich.) told The Hill after the bill passed, adding that the legislation would "have a disastrous impact on the administration of justice."

So, it's a good thing Smith's bill isn't going anywhere. The White House opposes it, and the Senate is unlikely to take the legislation up for a vote.

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