When Amy Kjose Anderson, senior director of ALEC’s Task Force on Civil Justice, talks about legal reforms to people around the country, she doesn’t speak legalese. There’s a reason for this: despite her job, Anderson is not a lawyer. Which may be a decided advantage.
How did it happen? Anderson joined the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) as an intern immediately after graduating from Johns Hopkins University, where she majored in International Studies, in 2006. Anderson, a California native, who had spent her last semester studying in France, had prepared for a career analyzing international issues.
But fate intervened. “I found a great mentor, as we women in the workplace are often fortunate to find,” she recalls. “And that kicked off my career dealing with legal reform.”
Anderson’s mentor was a leading authority on tort reform, Victor Schwartz, partner in the Washington office of Kansas City-based Shook, Hardy and Bacon, LLP, co-chairman of ALEC’s Civil Justice Task Force at the time. He recognized her talent and intellectual curiosity.
“We started meeting pretty frequently and I'd ask Mr. Schwartz questions,” she says. “I would say, ‘All right, explain this. How does this work? What’s the issue with this?’ We would get into these deeper philosophical debates and conversations about ways to improve state legal systems. That was about 12 years ago; my work has continued to evolve since then.”
Anderson admits that her mentor pushed law school. “Yes, Mr. Schwartz certainly lobbied me to go to law school for a number of years, and I thought deeply about it,” she says. “In the end, I knew I wouldn’t want to actually practice law and wasn’t eager to pay the high price tag. It was essential to be able to read and understand legal briefs, to read cases, to interpret statutes. I just committed myself to reading, absorbing it all and finding answers to my questions. It’s worked out well for me. In some ways I think like an attorney. But also, I think like a layperson, which is helpful in translating the reforms ALEC advocates for us non-lawyers in the world.”
Anderson, a California native, who had spent her last semester at Johns Hopkins studying in France, had prepared for a career analyzing international issues. But fate intervened. “I found a great mentor, as we women in the workplace are often fortunate to find,” she recalls. “And that kicked off my career dealing with legal reform.”
“So much of what I do is connecting state legislators with information,” Anderson explains about her job. “Sometimes that’s through blogs, or other publications. Often it is through conversation, and educational events. While I do original research, often I find myself getting research that already exists out to state legislators and boiling complex legal issues down to tangible concepts. I see my role as being a facilitator for policy thought and a spokesperson for good information.”
The purpose of ALEC’s Civil Justice Task Force is to “restore fairness and predictability to the civil justice system,” according to its website. It seeks reforms to reduce the number of frivolous lawsuits that unnecessarily cost businesses money that might otherwise go to hiring and helping create a prosperous economy. “It’s a matter of fairness and liberty,” Amy says. “Lawsuit reform is about looking at our laws and our civil legal system and finding the ways that those laws aren't being applied as intended and fixing that.
Landing an important job in the legal field as a non-lawyer isn’t the only twist in Amy’s intellectual life. If she’d been asked one of those what-do-you-see-yourself-doing-in-ten-years questions while a student at William S. Hart High School in the Santa Clarita Valley of Southern California, it would not have been policy. But here, too, a mentor offered intriguing ideas that changed her course. “I had always wanted to be a mathematician or a physicist. I love science and math. I still do,” Amy recalls. “But junior year of high school, I had a teacher, Mr. Pew, who brought history and politics to life. He encouraged us to discuss, debate, push ourselves to think about other viewpoints and test what our own viewpoints really were. And I loved that class. I loved how it challenged me both emotionally and intellectually. It was about midway through that class that I decided: No, politics is what it is for me, and policy in particular.”
Amy planned to be a life-long Californian. “I applied for college on the East coast, thinking I would live in California and hadn't really experienced the rest of the country at that point. I got into school, went East, loved it, decided to work in D.C. Now I live in Oklahoma, where my husband grew up. We've lived here for about eight years and I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. I love what the middle of the country has to offer. The friendliness, the low expense, the lack of traffic (as a Los Angeles native, this is key!) and just the heart of middle America. People in Oklahoma become neighbors quickly.” Amy’s husband works for a public oil and gas company, where his job involves finance and treasury.
Anderson works remotely from Oklahoma. “We've lived here for about eight years and I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else,” she says. “I love what the middle of the country has to offer. The friendliness, the low expense, the lack of traffic (as a Los Angeles native, this is key!) and just the heart of middle America. People in Oklahoma become neighbors quickly.”
She enjoys cooking and almost impossible do-it-yourself projects. “Cooking is my creative outlet,” she explains. “I like to innovate in the kitchen, throw different ingredients together and see what happens. As for the daunting do-it-yourself projects, my husband and I were both raised in families that spent a lot of time doing the work ourselves in the houses we lived in. And we’ve taken up the cause. We actually dug our basement down from a four-foot basement into an eight-foot basement to create a tornado shelter in our home in Oklahoma City. And we did most of that work ourselves.”
Amy has a world view based in humor, but partly born from tragedy. She explains, “I love to laugh at the world. There is humor all around us. If I don’t manage to find some in an entire day, then I’ve failed. And that is a trait that has been strengthened out of necessity in recent years. My husband and I were blessed with a son who was diagnosed with a terminal genetic disorder just before his first birthday. We embraced the light and love of every moment with him until he passed away just after his third birthday. It was almost two years ago that I said goodbye to his soft cheeks, crazy blond hair, long elegant fingers and mindful eyes. He probably taught me more to laugh than anyone else has. He endured a lot of pain and so much that he shouldn’t have had to endure in his short life. But somehow, we always found ourselves laughing and cuddling and seeing the great good in our lives. It could have been so easy to fall into despair, but he taught me to feel joy and sorrow as one well-rounded emotion with the power to find the beauty in our lives.” Clayton Edward Anderson died on July 31, 2017.
ALEC’s Justice Task Force has created more than 75 model policies in fields such as consumer protection liability, judicial overreach, administrative state reform, asbestos litigation, workers’ compensation, product liability, jury service, sue and settle regulatory expansion, and anti-SLAPP public speech protection. SLAPP stands for“strategic lawsuit against public participation,” and is an attempt to censor or silence critics by using the judicial system. “The beauty of our 50-state system is that we’ve been able to try different reforms in a number of different states,” Anderson says. “And different states have different problems that need to be dealt with.”
The purpose of ALEC’s Civil Justice Task Force is to “restore fairness and predictability to the civil justice system,” according to its website. “It’s a matter of fairness and liberty,” Amy says. “Lawsuit reform is about looking at our laws and our civil legal system and finding the ways that those laws aren't being applied as intended and fixing that.
Missouri, for example, which is “perennially on the bottom of the list of fair civil justice systems, this year just passed a couple of reforms. One would make the discovery process in civil litigation cheaper and better tied to need. Discovery can be one of the most expensive elements of a lawsuit. It’s the process by which you share data and information between the plaintiff and the defendant, but it can also be used as a delaying tactic.”
ALEC advocates judges’ looking at the requests and evaluating the cost and relevance to the case to better define the scope of discovery. “In the age of big data,” Anderson adds, “there’s so much electronic data to be consumed that discovery can get very expensive very quickly.” The Missouri reform, expected to be signed into law this summer, would enable a judge to require there be a relationship between what is requested and the case. It would hamper fishing expeditions that “don’t serve justice and aren’t a timely way to adjudicate a claim.”
Fans of the TV series “Law and Order SVU” are familiar with the expert witness who comes into the courtroom with bizarre and untested theories that supposedly have a bearing on the guilt or innocence of the defendant. This can make for gripping TV, but the witness stand in real life is no place for the airing of strange theories. ALEC advocates standards for expert witnesses that keep untested and out-of-the-mainstream science out of the courtroom. “The admission of such unreliable evidence, what we would call ‘junk science,’ has led juries to impose liability on civil defendants for injuries they did not cause,” Anderson has written. Testimony from expert witnesses should be fact-based, according to ALEC.
“The admission of unreliable evidence, what we would call ‘junk science,’ has led juries to impose liability on civil defendants for injuries they did not cause,” Anderson has written. Testimony from expert witnesses should be fact-based, according to ALEC.
Everybody has read about the stunning, high dollar verdicts being handed down lately by juries. In May, for example, a couple suffering from cancer which they argued was because of long term use of Roundup weed killer product were awarded an unparalleled $2 billion-plus verdict against Monsanto. “Verdicts vary by jury,” Anderson says. “So, one lawsuit might get you $11,000,000 in one city and then five cities over it’ll get you $500,000 even if the set of facts is the same. High lawsuit award damages can be merited, but too often we get outlandish verdicts (and the U.S. is well-known for these outlandish verdicts, they don’t occur in most other nations), and they take a toll on our economy.”
What to do? “I think it’s a combination of things,” Anderson replies. “It’s having reasonable caps on non-economic damages. It’s having reasonable guidelines for how punitive damages are awarded. It’s reforming lawsuit procedural rules and improving state consumer protection acts. So often it’s small businesses that are being most negatively impacted by over-zealous consumer protection lawsuits.
“Sometimes it’s changing how you look at product liability lawsuits. There were these lawsuits in Oklahoma a few years back against a gas can manufacturer. The plaintiffs were alleging that the gas can manufacturer should have put an additional item in their gas can that may have made them safer. It also would have increased the cost of that gas can. To begin with, though, these lawsuits were brought to recover money for people who poured gas on an open flame and were injured when the gas in the gas can also caught on fire. Personal responsibility is being ignored and the law manipulated in many of these cases. That company is now out of business. They were responsible for 75% of the gas cans produced in the US. Our country’s demand for gas cans is now being met by an offshore company because these lawsuits got in the way of doing business.”
Right now, we’re hearing a lot about lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies because of the opioid crisis. What about curtailing access to drugs for people who really need them? Anderson’s personal experiences give her an insight on this.
Amy has a world view based in humor, but partly born from tragedy. Her son was diagnosed with a rare and fatal genetic condition just before his first birthday. “My husband and I were blessed with a son who was diagnosed with a terminal genetic disorder just before his first birthday. We embraced the light and love of every moment with him until he passed away just after his third birthday. He probably taught me more to laugh than anyone else has.”
“You bring up a good point,” she says, “and one that hits home with me because my son was on two different opioids for the last year of his life and I am so thankful that we had those opioids. It was actually pretty difficult to get them. His doctors were willing to prescribe them within reason, but they are Schedule II drugs, and in our case it was hard to find a pharmacy to fill the prescription. Pharmacists would look at me as though I were some kind of drug addict when I was just trying to help my son feel less pain. So, it’s a personal issue for me to be sure. While we want to save lives from addiction, we must also keep life-improving medications on the market.
“Surveys show that the public supports lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies for opioid addiction, but they also show that they think the problem lies in distribution, in doctors overprescribing, in a lack of personal responsibility, and in inadequate government regulation. The public does recognize that this is a complicated public policy issue, and that’s why I feel it is more the role of the legislature to bring everybody to the table. Lawsuits try to pin an entire epidemic on one actor or a couple of actors; that’s over-simplifying a problem and potentially creating other problems.”
In a way, that typifies Amy: she’s grounded in the law, yes, but with a human touch that makes her able to talk about these issues in a way that the rest of us can trust and understand. And she’s fully committed to finding solutions with humor, optimism, and a lot of hard work.