Clint Eastwood, Lawyers, and the ADA

It wasn’t everyone’s idea of what a political speech should be, but this morning it was the speech everyone wanted to talk about: Addressing an empty chair representing President Obama, movie great Clint Eastwood took a swipe at the legal profession (“I never thought it was a good idea for attorneys to be president, anyway”) and made a case against the Democrats without actually showing all that much enthusiasm for the Republican Party. And those of us who’ve followed Eastwood’s comments on government and liberty over the years weren’t quite as surprised as many in the press seemed to be.

Did you know, for example, that Eastwood testified before Congress in 2000 on an issue that symbolizes the dysfunctional collision of law, legislation, and politics—that is to say, opportunistic ADA lawsuits? As I wrote at Overlawyered at the time:

The Hollywood actor and filmmaker got interested in the phenomenon of lawsuit mills that exploit the Americans with Disabilities Act … when he was hit with a complaint that some doors and bathrooms at his historic, 32-room Mission Ranch Hotel and restaurant in Carmel, Calif. weren’t accessible enough; there followed demands from the opposing side’s lawyer that he hand over more than just a fistful of dollars—$577,000, the total came to—in fees for legal work allegedly performed on the case. “It’s a racket”, opines Eastwood. “The typical thing is to get someone who is disabled in collusion with sleazebag lawyers, and they file suits.” … Eastwood told the WSJ he isn’t quarreling with the ADA itself, and the proposed legislation would affect only future cases and not the one against him; but “I just think for the benefit of everybody, they should cut out this racket because these are morally corrupt people who are doing this.”

Congress heard Eastwood’s and similar testimony and then did … nothing at all, not wanting to offend the more uncompromising lawyers in the disabled-rights movement. (More here, etc.)

There’s nothing like exposure to ADA filing mills to give one a jaundiced view of the legal profession. Although Democrats quickly pointed out that Romney and several other leading Republicans have law degrees, that doesn’t really blunt Eastwood’s point: by heading for legal academia, Obama signaled that the training “took” in a way that the business types like Romney didn’t.

There’s also nothing like exposure to ADA filing mills to give one a feeling that while the Democratic Party is more problematic overall, the Republicans aren’t necessarily a bargain either. While conservative GOPers are typically the ones who lead the charge to curtail ADA shakedown suits, much of the party is unwilling to cross the disabled-rights community on the issue – and this too is a long-running theme, with Presidents Bush both pere et fils having made a huge to-do about their unconditional support for a broadly applied ADA.

For many good reasons, not least diplomacy toward many Republicans in the audience, it could be predicted that Eastwood would say not a word about the ADA issue last night. But when he talked of the economic damage caused by feckless governance, I wonder whether he drew on his own experience as a small businessperson—and his awareness that when bad law closes down a restaurant, as has happened repeatedly in his own northern California, one can wind up with not just a single vacant chair but a whole roomful of them.