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Help: Neutral Term for 'Tort Reform'

My previous post today mentioned Illinois Lawsuit Abuse Watch, an organization seeking to bring "balance, fairness and common sense to our civil justice system." Of course, when it comes to the civil justice system, one person's idea of "balance, fairness and common sense" is certainly not another's. Groups such as I-LAW often refer to themselves as promoting "tort reform," and bloggers and journalists often run with this label. But "reform" is a word that suggests improvement for the better, so to call revision of the tort system "reform" is tacitly to endorse it.

In an interview last year, George Lakoff, a fellow of the liberal Rockridge Institute think tank, argued that use of the phrase "tort reform" is part of the way conservatives have "cleverly framed the public discussion." He said:

"[T]he very phrase 'tort reform' evokes a frame. In two words, it communicates that something is the matter with the tort system, which requires reform or correction. In this respect, the phrase is similar to another effective conservative phrase, 'tax relief.' Once the public accepts these phrases, they have bought into the idea that they need to be relieved from the affliction of taxes and that they need to fix the tort system. The debate then turns to the question of how and how much. At that point, progressives can’t win the debate; the best we can do is limit the losses."

So what should we label the debate over changes to our justice system? Lakoff's suggestion is to replace "tort reform" with "destruction of the civil justice system."  For its blog about civil justice, the Drum Major Institute uses a name that Ralph Nader helped popularize, Tort Deform. These names certainly succeed in reframing the debate, but they get us no closer to neutral than where we started.

Even the Wikipedia tort reform entry is tagged with a dispute over the neutrality of the title. So  for those of us who wish to refer to the debate in a neutral manner, what should we call it, if anything? Help us, readers, come us with a neutral phrase for the often-acrimonious discussion about civil justice in the United States.

Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on March 20, 2007 at 05:24 PM | Permalink | Comments (5)

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