Once again House Republicans have put the timetable for their "contract with America" ahead of the substance of the bills they are ramming through the lower chamber. On Wednesday the House approved a drastic revision of the nation's securities laws as part of the GOP's agenda for legal reform. The proposed Securities Litigation Reform Act, which is a key provision in the "contract," would sharply curb the ability of investors and shareholders to sue stockbrokers, accounting firms and companies for fraud.
The measure, authored by Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach), simply goes too far. It is one thing to craft legislation directed at curbing specific abuses of securities litigation, but the House measure would amount to a wholesale dismantling of the system that enables investors and shareholders to seek redress for financial fraud.
Opponents, including state securities administrators as well as consumer groups, maintain that the bill would virtually destroy the ability of citizens of modest means to sue when they are victims of fraud. Arthur Levitt Jr., the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, who has worked to improve investor protections, has reservations about the measure. So has U.S. Atty. Gen. Janet Reno. Small wonder.
The proposed law would tilt the legal system in favor of corporations and their accounting firms, lawyers and investment firms by making it too easy for them to defend themselves against shareholder suits.
What might such a law portend for cases like Orange County? County officials are seeking legal recourse against Merrill Lynch Co., which sold high-risk securities to the county's ill-fated investment pool, ultimately triggering its bankruptcy. The fear is that the proposed law could be interpreted by the courts in ways that would work against plaintiffs in cases like this one.
Under the House bill, a judge could require the losers in a securities fraud case to pay the legal expenses of the winner if the judge determined that the investors' complaint did not originally possess substantial merit. Currently there is no "loser pays" general provision. The proposed law also would demand that the plaintiff show that the company or its officials acted knowingly and recklessly in committing the fraud. The current standards are simpler: They allow investors to sue for fraud if a company withholds information or issues misleading information that affects the market price.
Between these two standards there perhaps is a sensible middle ground--but that's not to be found in the House bill.
Cox casts his bill as a limitation against so-called "strike suits," brought by shareholders who file lawsuits when the share price drops in a company in which they own a small part of the stock. The congressman likes to point out that high-technology companies are a favorite target of such lawsuits. Abuses of such lawsuits absolutely do exist and should certainly be curbed, but the House bill, as drawn, is overly broad in its potential application.
The Senate will take up the securities reform bill soon. We urge it to take a reasoned approach to the problems posed by frivolous securities lawsuits. The current House bill is not the answer.