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Author sees good sense as cure for what ails us


© St. Petersburg Times,
published July 28, 2001

A few years ago, Gov. Lawton Chiles moved to eliminate many of the complex rules and regulations state agencies imposed on Floridians.

The move came after Chiles read The Death of Common Sense, a book written by New York lawyer Philip K. Howard. The book played a key role on the agendas of two presidents and several governors.

This week Howard was back in Florida consulting with Gov. Jeb Bush. Howard is among those who helped Bush revamp the state's civil service system.

"We're trying to operate in a more common sensical way but are fighting against a cultural phenomenon that is more powerful," Bush says.

On Wednesday, Howard talked with several hundred of the people who work for the governor about his new book, The Lost Art of Drawing a Line in the Sand.

Our national effort to protect individual rights has left us in a situation where the rights of the majority are being forfeited because of the complaints of a minority, Howard concludes.

Across America doctors practice an overly cautious brand of medicine to avoid malpractice suits, school principals no longer use their own judgment in handing out discipline and almost everyone looks over their shoulder in fear of lawsuits.

At schools, that fear leaves teachers and principals bound by things like zero-tolerance policies that don't let them make a judgment call. That means students with nail clippers are suspended along with those carrying a switchblade, Howard notes.

Perhaps life at Columbine High School would have been different if someone in authority had felt empowered enough to intervene in the increasingly bizarre behavior of the two young men who wound up killing themselves after a shooting rampage two years ago.

"We've lost the connection between authority and common sense," says Howard.

Seesaws and even some slides are disappearing from playgrounds across America, Howard notes.

"If you allow the rights of the child hurt on the seesaw to rule, the seesaws will disappear and what happens to the thousands of children who like to seesaw?" asks Howard.

Instead of fearing lawsuits over playground falls or Little League games, Americans should accept the fact that some activities come with risk, he says.

Howard places much of the blame for the problem on America's trial lawyers, "the villains of our society who pit Americans against each other and feed off the carnage."

Frivolous lawsuits demanding millions, even billions, of dollars for minor injuries go to trial in courtrooms where judges refuse to use common sense and dismiss a suit because it's ridiculous to demand $10-million for a broken leg, Howard says.

He believes the nation's medical malpractice problems could be solved by setting up medical panels with the expertise to put bad doctors out of business and protect the good doctors from outrageous claims.

Unless something is done, Howard believes, doctors will continue to order unneeded CAT scans and other tests when an aspirin would do the job in most instances.

"The trial lawyers have to be taken on," he says. "Leadership is required by whoever can get public attention."

He is working with the founders of the Concord Coalition to establish the Common Sense Coalition, a bipartisan group that would work to restore common sense around the country.

A native of Tifton, Ga., and the son of a Presbyterian minister, Howard is now a lawyer in New York City and heads the city's historical preservation committee.

"What I preach is pretty radical," Howard acknowledges. "But I think there is a desert waiting to be watered. It starts with leadership."

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