The House took aim yesterday at what Republicans called abuses in class action lawsuits, passing legislation that would move most such suits into federal courts.
Most Democrats and the White House opposed the measure, saying it would make it harder for individuals to seek compensation for corporate wrongdoing.
The measure, passed 222 to 207, would grant federal courts jurisdiction in cases where any member of the proposed class is a citizen of a state different from any defendant.
Shifting many class action lawsuits away from state courts would prevent such practices as "forum shopping," in which attorneys file suits in states where they are more likely to get a favorable ruling, supporters said.
"Hundreds of frivolous lawsuits are filed in favorable state courts and used as high-stakes, court-endorsed blackmail devices against companies that usually settle rather than face a long and arduous court battle," said Rep. John Linder (R-Ga.).
The legislation is backed by business groups and industries that have been the target of class action lawsuits, including the tobacco, gun and auto industries. But its prospects are uncertain in the Senate, and the administration said in a statement that it would recommend a presidential veto if the bill ever wins final approval.
Many state residents would be denied access to their own state courts, and the legislation coincides with "a time when the chief justice, among others, has repeatedly expressed serious concerns about the increasingly burdensome workload of the federal courts," the administration said.
Frank Clemente, director of Public Citizen's Congress Watch, said passage would be a victory for corporate interests who want protection from what they regard as predatory liability lawsuits.
"If this legislation is enacted, it will provide the tobacco industry with unprecedented legal protection," said Rep. Henry D. Waxman (D-Calif.). "It is nothing less than a backdoor immunity from class action lawsuits."
Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte (R-Va.), the chief sponsor of the legislation, argued that legislation was necessary because different certification standards for class actions in the states have opened the way for abuse. Attorneys, he said, shop around until they find the one judge in the one state "who thinks anything goes."
He said his bill would keep purely local matters in state courts. Cases would not go to federal courts when a substantial majority of the class members and defendants are citizens of the same states and the claims are governed primarily by that state's law.