As anyone reading Walter Olson’s posts and Forbes coverage knows, CPSIA is a bad law, with disastrous effects on retailers and small manufacturers.
It certainly seems unfair that Congress can wipe out thousands of businesses with the stroke of pen. It’s certainly bad public policy: as I have written elsewhere, when legislatures act to retroactively disrupt settled expectations, the effects redound far beyond the targeted industries to create uncertainty throughout the economy.
It’s a jump, however, from “bad public policy” to “unconstitutional,” and I am concerned that I see many lay blogs asserting otherwise. Starting in the 1930s, the Supreme Court has given free rein to Congress and legislatures to engage in economic regulation, even when that regulation has dramatic effects on individuals. In cases such as Tahoe-Sierra Preservation Council, Inc. v. Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, 535 U.S. 202 (2002), and Keystone Bituminous Coal Assn. v. DeBenedictis, 480 U.S. 470 (1987), the Supreme Court signed off on the constitutionality of far-reaching regulations, despite the large economic effect on property owners affected by the laws. While conservative justices and scholars have argued that such “regulatory takings” without compensation violate the Fifth Amendment, their respect for the rule of law and the actual text of the Constitution are pooh-poohed by Democrats as following an esoteric (and fictional) “Constitution in Exile” movement. There are, at most, four justices on today’s Supreme Court that would recognize the doctrine of regulatory takings; that number is not going to grow under President Obama (who has explicitly disclaimed any need to appoint judges who merely “follow the law”) and a Democratic Senate.
There exist public-interest law firms like the Institute for Justice that engage in litigation over economic constitutional rights–and, while they take donations, they do so without charging their clients money. I think litigation would be fruitless with the makeup of the current judiciary, but I acknowledge that IJ does do a good job of putting forward its principles, and often leveraging its litigation into political success.
But it concerns me even more to see a website recruiting victims of CPSIA to send money to a lawyer to bring a lawsuit. The attorney, involved, Michael Kushner, is a run-of-the-mill plaintiffs’ attorney without any demonstrated expertise in Fifth Amendment law, but has offered to take the case for a $25,000 retainer–which is certainly not enough to fully litigate this to the Supreme Court. There is questionable ethics, if not outright fraud, in asking parties to what is most appropriately filed as a Rule 23(b)(2) class action to “file forms” and send money to join–the whole point of a class action is that a representative of a class is named who will act on behalf of parties that haven’t signed up. Moreover, the Equal Access to Justice Act permits attorneys who have won constitutional litigation when the government’s position was not “substantially justified” to collect attorney’s fees. And note that at no point in Kushner’s website or the related blog recruiting members does he spell out a theory of legal victory.
Sending money to a lawyer to litigate the CPSIA is throwing good money after bad. That a law is unsound does not make it unconstitutional and vice versa. The road to solving the problem of the CPSIA is through Congress, either by making Democratic legislators see common sense, or electing legislators who aren’t so willing to sign off on bills constructed by trial lawyers to benefit themselves at the expense of society at large. Spending resources on doomed litigation diverts from the pressure needed to get Congress to change its mind.