No Easy Verdict on Thompson The Lawyer

Fred D. Thompson, shown in 1981, drew the concern of Republicans with his affinity with trial lawyers, who are a popular target of the GOP.
Fred D. Thompson, shown in 1981, drew the concern of Republicans with his affinity with trial lawyers, who are a popular target of the GOP. (John Duricka - AP)
By John Solomon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 26, 2007

Before he was elected as a tough-on-crime U.S. senator from Tennessee or played a New York prosecutor on TV's "Law and Order," Fred Dalton Thompson worked as a lawyer who argued against the government's authority to regulate drug paraphernalia or to search a boat packed with 14 tons of marijuana.

Once, two decades ago, he urged that more witnesses refuse to testify before grand juries by invoking their constitutional right against self-incrimination, boasting that "I start on the assumption that my client will not testify." And over the years, lawsuits he filed helped a state worker win reinstatement to her job while exposing a parole bribery scheme and won money for the family of a Marine pilot killed by a helicopter blade when the family could not sue the Defense Department.

Thompson's work as a lawyer from the late 1970s to the early 1990s is one of the least explored aspects of a career that has taken the Tennessean with the imposing frame and deep voice from early fame as a Watergate lawyer to a Senate career, Hollywood stardom and now the brink of a campaign for president.

His work representing white-collar criminals, drug defendants and lawsuit victims has given Thompson an affinity with one of the Republican Party's perennial targets, trial lawyers, and he carries that connection with him even today as he prepares to seek the GOP presidential nomination. It also helped shape a view on lawsuit reform that has frequently put him at odds with his own party.

"We viewed him as someone we could work with, particularly given he had been an advocate in court for individuals and corporations, and had an innate understanding of what went on in a civil jury," explained Linda Lipsen, the chief lobbyist for the American trial lawyers lobby group that Republicans often pilloried for opposing tort reform during the 1990s.

Unlike many Republicans during the 1990s, Thompson easily collected large sums of political donations from lawyers during his Senate career -- more than $1.5 million over eight years. The trial lobby's political action committee gave him maximum $10,000 donations during each of his two Senate campaigns.

Aligning himself with trial lawyers was another seeming contradiction in Thompson's varied career -- a Republican who succeeded in Hollywood, a former lobbyist who lives in Northern Virginia, now positioning himself to run for president as a Washington outsider.

In the Senate, Thompson routinely voted against legislation aimed at shrinking the size of fees that attorneys could collect and rejected limits on medical malpractice lawsuits, bucking his own party. Most Republicans supported such reforms, arguing that trial lawyers routinely filed frivolous lawsuits or won unnecessarily large awards that drove up the cost of insurance and products.

The American Conservative Union gave Thompson a lifetime score of 86, placing him in the middle of Republicans it rated. The group noted that he voted against two of the four lawsuit changes the group supported.

"When you are taking a look at Thompson as a conservative," said ACU Chairman David Keene, "the negatives come down to plowing around with John McCain on campaign finance and a general sense that he sided with trial lawyers because of his background."

Keene said Thompson's position on tort reform is "something someone who favors another candidate or isn't very enamored with Thompson might raise more as an excuse than a reason" not to vote for him.

Officially, Thompson and his aides declined to answer questions about his legal work on the grounds that he is not a declared candidate. Privately, his advisers said they are acutely aware that GOP opponents could try to paint Thompson as too liberal, based on his legal work, his support from the trial lawyers' lobby and his votes on liability legislation that conflicted with those of most Republicans.

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