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SCORE ONE FOR DAN QUAYLE: TOO MANY LAWYERS, SUITS

SHARE SCORE ONE FOR DAN QUAYLE: TOO MANY LAWYERS, SUITS

When Vice President Dan Quayle suggested last year there are too many lawyers and too many law suits, he got brickbats from attorneys and roses from the public.

But now he is starting to get at least grudging support from some quarters of the legal profession along with mounting evidence that America must streamline its judicial system and find other ways of settling disputes.The new support comes from California Lawyer magazine, which polled that state's lawyers and found that 76 per cent of those responding agreed with Quayle.

Many agreed that the rising tide of lawsuits stems directly from the growth of the legal profession, whose membership has more than tripled in the past four decades. Nearly half of the poll's respondents favor limiting the number of new lawyers admitted to the bar.

The new evidence comes from the National Center for State Courts, which recently reported that the number of new cases filed in state courts topped 100 million for the first time in 1990.

Though many of these cases involve only traffic violations or other local ordinances, even tort cases are on the rise, too. Tort suits - seeking compensation for people who have been injured - have risen 30 percent over the past seven years, while the population increased just 5 percent.

This data tends to confirm the impression that Americans are much too quick to sue each other. This penchant for litigation, in turn, clogs the courts, strains social relations, undermines the political process and enriches lawyers while sapping the nation's economic strength.

Even those who defend the present system admit that lawsuits drain the economy of from $29 billion to $36 billion a year. Critics put the figure at anywhere from $80 billion to $300 billion.

Both sides, fortunately, agree on at least some remedies. For example, both favor raising the level of proof needed to win punitive damages in civil suits. Both support some action to control the time and expense involved in the "discovery" process of gathering evidence from the opposing side before trial.

The courts also could use more money and personnel to deal with caseloads that are bound to increase to some extent as long as this country's population keeps growing.

But the reforms won't be complete until they include some alternate way of settling disputes outside of courts, such as through voluntarily submitting some disagreements to binding arbitration.

Even arbitration panels, however, can get bogged down with too many cases unless Americans either develop thicker skins or otherwise become more willing to forgive and forget. Victory in any forum can still exact a stiff price for the winner in emotional if not in financial terms. When it comes to achieving quick peace of mind, there's still no substitute for turning the other cheek.