House Republicans Ignore States' Rights In Push For Tort Reform

May 13, 2011 2:00 pm ET — Walid Zafar

A bill passed by the House Energy and Commerce Committee will restrict the ability of most states to legislate tort laws dealing with medical malpractice. H.R. 5, the Help Efficient, Accessible, Low-cost, Timely Healthcare of 2011 came out of committee with strong Republican support despite the fact that it would set a federal mandate on states. The bill would set a three-year statute of limitations on malpractice claims and cap both noneconomic and punitive damages. The committee vote was quickly applauded by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which receives tens of millions in contributions from the insurance industry.

Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-GA), one of Congress's most vocal advocates for a federal cap on medical malpractices suits and the sponsor of the legislation, is a physician who has faced several medical liability lawsuits of his own. Gingrey has defended the bill by citing the Commerce Clause.

Just last year, ironically enough, the Supreme Court of Georgia unanimously overturned a state law that set a $350,000 limit on medical malpractice cases. Chief Justice Carol Hunstein noted that "the very existence of the caps, in any amount, is violative of the right to trial by jury." Several other state supreme courts have also ruled that legislated caps are unconstitutional. In Illinois, for instance, the state's top court overturned a similar law arguing that it violated the state constitution's separation-of-power clause.

Democrats introduced amendments meant to address this issue, but both — from Reps. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) and John Barrow (D-GA) — were defeated. Republicans even defeated an amendment introduced by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) meant to exclude "intentional tort liability" — cases where the injury was intentionally caused — from the cap.

Surprisingly, during the committee markup, Rep. Lee Terry (R-NE) argued that it's "very clear that [the legislation] violates states' rights." Terry and Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-VA) joined most of the Committee's Democrats in opposition. Jim Matheson, a member of the conservative Blue Dog Coalition, was the sole Democrat to vote in favor of the cap.

Several Republicans on the committee who approved the bill, including Reps. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), Bob Latta (R-OH), Cathy McMorris-Rodgers, (R-WA), and Pete Olson (R-TX) belong to the so-called 10th Amendment Caucus, which works to "restore the Constitutional balance of power through liberty-enhancing federalism."