Thank you, Doug, for that kind introduction. You have been a great friend over the years and I very much appreciate the invitation to address you and your colleagues here tonight.
Doug Sheff has been an effective advocate in the courts and an outspoken advocate for the issues that confront all the members of the bar. He has worked hard to uphold the honor and dignity of the legal profession and he has never been afraid to speak up and stand up for what is right.
You are lucky to have such a talented lawyer heading the Academy here in Massachusetts. The theme of your conference this year, “Caring for the Commonwealth’s Consumers,” is really what his career has been all about.
I very much appreciate receiving the “Consumer Advocacy Award” from a group that knows better than any other the challenges of protecting the rights of ordinary citizens. Throughout my career at Citizens Energy and in Congress, I have relied on your support, advice, and counsel to redress so many of the wrongs visited upon the poor and the weak.
In so many ways, you are the Johnny Ruizes of the world. You are principled and disciplined warriors who struggle and train outside of the limelight, waiting for your moment in the ring to not only take on but to defeat the big, bad Evander Holyfields of America who care nothing about the little folks back home in Chelsea.
Actually, when I came here tonight, I was prepared to compare you to Erin Brockovich, but in checking out the room, you guys look more like a bunch of bruised prizefighters than Julia Roberts with a subpoena.
Speaking of champions, I also want to thank our former House Speaker and state Attorney General Bob Quinn for his inspiring words. Bob has devoted his career in the public and private sector to watching out for those in need -- to fighting for the underdog. His pioneering efforts to protect consumers from unscrupulous lenders and protect our fragile environment were decades ahead of their time and set a standard for the nation to follow.
Bob has also been a tireless advocate for peace and justice in Ireland, an issue close to my heart. And we all owe Bob a debt of gratitude for making sure our peace officers are among the best educated -- and the best paid -- in the nation. Thank you again, Bob, for your comments.
I also want to acknowledge the family of the late Herb Finbury and to salute his achievements in the legal profession, which he obviously loved so much. My friend Leo Boyle, who is a terrific lawyer, was very kind to make the presentation here tonight, and I know we all want to wish him well as he assumes the presidency of the Association of American Trial Lawyers.
At a time that the legal profession is coming under increasing attack, it’s important to have an organization like the Massachusetts Academy of Trial Attorneys stand up and speak out about the importance of your work.
What you do each and every day is critically important to average people who have little or no recourses when they come up against big corporations and insurance companies that have no interest in justice or doing what’s right.
Many people have come up to me over the years and talked about my father’s work as a US Senator and the vision he put forth while running for president.
In fact, what he always was proudest of was becoming a lawyer. My father went into the legal profession because he knew it was the best way to help people in need.
It was lawyers who ended legal segregation in America’s schools through the Brown vs. Board of Education case that Thurgood Marshall carried to the Supreme Court at the beginning of my father’s legal career.
Working on the rackets committee in the US Senate, he directed a battery of lawyers in exposing the cancer of corruption eating away at the fabric of our democracy. As any good lawyer knows, standing up for what is right often means you have to be willing to take on tough fights, and there were few tougher opponents in that era than Jimmy Hoffa and his mob cronies.
In so many ways, the greatest accomplishments of the Kennedy administration came from the hard work and dedication of my father’s legal team at the Attorney General’s office.
Exhaustive legal work was the primary weapon in the battle to tear down the walls of American apartheid and open up lunch counters, college classrooms, bus stations, and boardrooms to every American, regardless of race, color, or creed.
The legal groundwork directed by my father paved the way for the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the Public Accommodations Act, and the Fair Housing Act. These were signal achievements that inspired a whole generation of Americans to believe in the power of law to redeem the promise of justice in our country.
My father used to say that politics is an honorable profession. And so is the law. And when pursued by honorable men, both politics and the law rise to their highest potential -- to defend the weak against the strong and by so doing breathe new life into the timeless ideals that created this great nation.
The people in this room know better than anyone the challenges that still lie ahead to protect average Americans from corporate greed.
Just look at what’s coming out of Washington these days. Big business is back in the driver’s seat and they’re putting the pedal to the metal.
President Bush has tossed overboard a campaign promise to regulate carbon dioxide, caving in to coal companies and big utilities that depend on the filthy fuel to fire their furnaces. You know the cost that will be exacted on the lungs of our children.
They want to keep arsenic in the water and safety inspectors out of the workplace.
Credit card companies have gotten a friendly bankruptcy bill that makes it harder than ever for consumers to get out from under the mountain of debt that the companies encouraged them to incur in the first place.
Big manufacturing interests have scuttled new ergonomic rules intended to end over 600,000 workplace injuries every year. But if they think they’ve eliminated repetitive stress syndrome as a pain in their wallets, just wait until they feel the repetitive stress of all those lawsuits you’ll lay on them!
Oil and gas companies are salivating over the promised land -- the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve, which President Bush and his big energy [bodies] want to open up to drilling.
Big drug companies not only are expecting longer patent protections but also are angling to profit from new federal drug benefits whose costs will be driven up by those patent giveaways.
The new regime in Washington would have you think they’re on the side of the little guy, struggling to run a family-owned company, but what do you think they’ll do about the assaults on small businesses by huge corporations?
The Big Three auto manufacturers are stepping up efforts to market directly to consumers in all 50 states, thus endangering the livelihood of 20,000 auto dealerships and their one million employees.
In the insurance industry, big companies have squeezed doctors and hospitals with stingy reimbursements and poor service while driving independent insurance agencies out of business.
More than 90% of all small businesses and homeowners choose to write their life, health, property, and casualty insurance through independent agents. But with big insurers steadily cutting their commissions, the ranks of independent agencies -- most of them family-owned businesses -- have declined by 37% since 1987.
In the travel industry, cuts in commissions have forced thousands of independent travel agents to shut their doors. And as for airline workers, the Bush administration has already shown they’re more than willing to undermine their rights to stand up for better wages and working conditions.
And you can be sure that consumer victories that I helped win with your help will come under assault.
They’ll go after fair lending practices that force banks to work with and not against underserved communities.
They’ll attack protections for elderly homeowners from unscrupulous lenders and their lackeys in phony home improvement firms.
They’ll try to scuttle the rights of consumers to correct errors in their credit reports and gain access to those reports.
Big business likes to attack your profession. They know that you are often not just the first line of defense but the only line of defense from these assaults on average working families. For that, you deserve commendations and not contempt.
When the average family suffers because of the irresponsible actions of a big drug company, an HMO, or a manufacturer, where can they turn? To the National Association of Manufacturers and their Gucci-hoofed lobbyists?
No, at the end of the day, a congressman can’t help them. A senator can’t help them. A governor can’t help them.
But a lawyer can. And that’s why you deserve the thanks of every American who believes in justice and fair play.
Those are the ideals that I was taught. I grew up in a family that believed, as you do, that we have to watch out for one another, that we have to pull together to help those who are left behind. We were taught that America isn’t just about making money from streets paved with gold, but about hard work and family and education and getting ahead in life through discipline and devotion.
We were taught that each and every one of us has a responsibility not just to do the best we can in life but to reach out to others.
That’s what we try to do at Citizens Energy. Our company tries to show that business can work not to the detriment but for the betterment of those in need.
Like you, we have taken on big fights against big companies and big industries to help the least among us. We challenged monopoly control of gas pipelines in order to deliver cheaper natural gas to low income customers. We challenged the utilities’ stranglehold on electricity trading to lower the cost of juice to working families. We found a way to work in the oil trading and exploration field to produce profits and use them to lower the cost of heating oil to the poor and the elderly.
We’re now taking on the pharmaceutical industry to deliver the same drug discounts to the uninsured that the rest of us enjoy.
And in the energy field, we’re advocating for the creation of an Organization of Petroleum Importing Countries to offset the power of OPEC and achieve long term price and supply stability for crude oil. There are few consumer battles more far-reaching than finding ways to eliminate harmful price volatility in the world crude oil markets.
As advocates, you understand that major industrial nations can and ought to use their clout to threaten sanctions against producing nations that illegally manipulate production quotas to drive up the cost of oil. Their price-fixing has brought the world economy to the brink of recession. Such actions hurt everyone in our economy but hurt the poor most of all.
Driving up oil prices forces senior citizens to choose between heating and eating. It busts the budget of working families struggling to feed and clothe their children and save for their education.
When you look around America these days or read the newspapers or listen to the evening news, you might not think a lot of people need help in these fights.
Despite its recent ups and downs, the stock market has created tremendous new wealth in America in rising over 7,000 points since 1993.
Unemployment is at a record 30-year low.
Over 22 million new jobs have been created in the last eight years.
We have had the world’s most competitive economy for the last seven years.
Late last year, the Census Bureau reported that median household income in the US topped $40,000 for the first time in history and that the percentage of households living in poverty dropped to the lowest point in more than two decades.
The annual inflation rate is the lowest since the Kennedy administration.
Nearly two-thirds of Americans own their own homes -- the highest rate in history.
Wage gaps between black and white in America are rapidly narrowing. In fact, black unemployment is at a record low while median income levels for African Americans and Latinos have reached the highest levels ever recorded.
But with all this good news, there’s another world out there you rarely read about.
Of the six billion people on earth, 1 in every 4 -- 1.5 billion people -- lives on less than $1 per day.
Almost one billion people -- 1 in every 6 on Earth -- are malnourished.
Every day, over 20,000 people die from hunger. Seventy-five percent of them are children under the age of five.
Almost one billion people -- 1 out of every 3 adults -- cannot read or write. Two-thirds of those who cannot read are women.
In Africa, over 25 million people are infected with HIV. Life expectancy on the continent has declined 10 years because of the epidemic.
Here in our own country, there are so many stories of misery and deprivation you won’t hear about on the evening news.
Every day in America, two million people are homeless: 100,000 are children and one-third of the adult homeless are veterans.
Every day, among all children in America:
Every 24 hours, 3,000 children start smoking.
And every night, 5.5 million American children go to bed hungry.
In 1974, the average CEO earned 35 times the pay of the company’s average worker. In the year 2000, the average CEO earned 200 times the salary of the average worker.
The top fifth of American households have seen their income grow 43% since 1977 while the bottom fifth has lost 10% in earnings.
At the end of the day, the challenge to every American is to do something about those left behind -- the poor and the sick and the hungry and the unemployed.
Despite the images of lawyers that big corporations have used to gut legal protections for consumers, the fact is that most of the people who come to your offices for help are not wealthy or powerful. They are ordinary people who have been injured on the job, hurt in an accident, harmed by some product, or mistreated in a hospital.
When I was in Congress, I worked with your organization to make sure that the Newt Gingrich Congress did not roll back consumer protections and tip the scales of justice exclusively in favor of big business by eliminating workplace safety rules, capping noneconomic damages, and punishing the poor with “loser pays” provisions.
Though we won those battles, the struggle goes on. The GOP continues to do the will of their big business backers by attempting to limit product liability, medical malpractice and class actions. While there is much talk of bipartisanship, there is little evidence of reaching across the aisle when it comes to protecting consumer rights or funding the Legal Services Corporation.
One of the most important fights in the consumer arena -- to prevent absolute secrecy surrounding negotiated settlements -- is now before us again, here in Massachusetts, where efforts are under way to pull the cloak of secrecy over settlements.
We all know that public knowledge is the disinfectant of truth.
When we look at all the attention paid recently to cases involving death and injury from Firestone tires, it is important to realize that the first settlements for cases involving those products go back over eight years.
The public has a right to know about dangerous products. You are fighting for basic consumer justice when you attempt to shed light on such information for the benefit of all.
But what thanks do you get for such work?
Along with politicians and journalists, you get ranked at the bottom of the scale in public esteem.
Clearly, big business has invested heavily in promoting the image of lawyers out to line their own pockets.
But there is much you can do yourselves to promote the image of civility and public service.
As an organization, you have taken major strides here in Massachusetts to build up social capital in the form of greater involvement in charitable programs.
As individuals, there is more everyone can do to step up to the plate to help lift the underprivileged out of despair and hopelessness. The public will have a different view of plaintiffs’ attorneys when the headlines aren’t just about big settlements and fees.
You are clearly defenders of the public welfare, fighting against big interests whose products and by-products hurt our neighbors and friends.
As you fight in the courts and the State House to protect consumer rights, you are also fighting a battle for the soul of your profession against those who would portray you as nothing more than greedy barristers.
You can win that battle, not just as an organization but as individuals who reach out and help those in need, as lawyers who volunteer their time and resources to improve health care and education for the poor, to serve as mentors and allies to those in need.
You have made tremendous progress in these areas and I salute all your achievements. In the weeks and months ahead, I know you will continue to do all you can to not only protect the interests of ordinary citizens but to redeem the promise of your profession and demonstrate the value of what you have to offer to your clients and to society as a whole.
Thank you again for tonight’s award and thank you for inviting me to speak.