Yesterday was the 102nd birthday of Ronald Reagan, the greatest President of my lifetime, to whom I owe personal and professional thanks for my marriage (to one of his White House secretaries) and my Washington career (beginning as a Reagan Administration political appointee). His personally autographed photo congratulating us on our marriage is one of our most cherished possessions.
Almost two years ago, I researched all of his speeches and writings available on the internet to determine whether he would be considered a “constitutional conservative” by today’s standards, meaning fidelity to the Bill of Rights, or whether he would stand with today’s “Crony Capitalists” who lobby in Washington for special protection in federal law through the preemption of state law or, worse yet, immunity through federal tort reform. Too many politicians who pass themselves off as constitutional conservatives ditch the 7th Amendment right to civil jury trials and side with Crony Capitalists to protect companies they represent.
I then wrote a special post titled, “What Ronald Reagan REALLY Said About Tort Reform,” which I re-posted in January of last year. The conclusion of my research is crystal clear.
Ronald Reagan was never for federal tort reform. He never proposed a federal tort reform bill in his State of the Union speeches, budget proposals, nomination acceptance speeches, or major addresses on the economy.
Reagan’s silence in the issue is due primarily to his strong belief in the rights of the states and individual, as protected in the Bill of Rights. Reagan understood, better than almost any political figure of our times, the limitations on central power built into the Constitution and fortified by the Bill of Rights. He highlighted his fidelity to federalism in his first Inaugural Address in 1981:
All of us need to be reminded that the federal government did not create the states; the states created the federal government.
And before that, in his 1979 speech announcing his candidacy:
The federal government has taken on functions it was never intended to perform and which it does not perform well. There should be a planned, orderly transfer of such functions to states and communities and a transfer with them of the sources of taxation to pay for them.
That sounds like a constitutional conservative, not a Crony Capitalist. And I remember that Reagan was the presidential candidate for “Main Street Republicans,” including the social conservative movement, while John Connolly of Texas was the guy backed by the “Wall Street Republicans.”
In the decades in which he addressed public policy issues as a commentator, Governor and President, he addressed the issue of federal tort reform apparently only once, near the end of his Presidency. In remarks he gave in Washington in April 1986, he remained true to his roots, saying, “To be sure, much tort law would remain to be reformed by the 50 States, not the Federal Government. And in our Federal system of government this is only right.” That’s a man who knows that Uncle Sam’s authority is limited to the powers enumerated in the Constitution. Unlike many on the left and right today, Reagan would have had no inconsistency between his opinion on Obamacare and his thoughts on federal tort reform. He would have found both unconstitutional.
Reagan would feel right at home with the Tea Party base of the Republican Party that recognizes and honors the 7th Amendment right to a jury trial for civil suits. He would have stood with legal scholars Randy Barnett and Rob Natelson; Senators Tom Coburn and Mike Lee; and Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli against the takeover of state tort law by the feds. I have to believe that anyone proposing sweeping preemption of the states’ rights to protect citizens and manage courtrooms would’ve drawn severe skepticism or outright opposition by President Reagan.
So thank you, Ronald Reagan, for your vigorous defense of personal and states’ rights, and for so much more.