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"Trial Lawyers" at the ACLU?

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February 1, 2008

Telecom immunity is the issue drawing the most fire from Republicans as FISA legislation lurches through the Senate. The Republicans’ latest tactic? Accusing Democrats of protecting the interests of the well-heeled “trial lawyers” who are profiting from lawsuits against the phone companies. On Fox News, Representative John Boehner (R-Ohio) said: “I believe [phone companies] deserve immunity from lawsuits out there from typical trial lawyers trying to find a way to get into the pockets of the American companies.”

Even if we accept the bizarre idea that lawyers who represent individuals in court are necessarily opportunistic, unprincipled, and profit-obsessed, rather than guardians of the Constitution’s Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Amendments, the Republicans are seriously confused.

A few blogs, like Glenn Greenwald‘s and Emptywheel, have correctly pointed out that it is nonprofits like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the ACLU who are leading the charge against the phone companies who collaborated with the NSA. ACLU attorneys have been called a lot of things, but “trial lawyers” is a new one.

When I think of “trial lawyers,” I think of fancy white-shoe law firms notorious for doling out six-figure salaries to their first-year associates. (The ACLU is more of a no-shoe operation: at least one of our attorneys walks around the office barefoot.) ACLU attorneys aren’t suing the telecoms for the money. They’re suing the telecoms to protect the rights of Americans whose phone companies violated their privacy rights. These people deserve their day in court, and the White House and its Republican cohorts want to deny them that.

The Democrats who threaten to filibuster any legislation with telecom immunity, like Senators Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), aren’t protecting trial lawyers’ pocketbooks: they’re protecting Americans’ civil liberties. Which is something that could never be said about this administration.