Legal Briefing: House Acts to Aid BP's Widows and Orphans

A daily look at legal news and the business of law:

Congress Moves to Ensure BP Pays Victims' Families

The House of Representatives faced down the U.S. Chamber of Commerce -- and, oddly, the cruise industry -- to pass the "SPILL Act", making it possible for the families of people killed in the Deepwater Horizon accident to sue for damages equal to those that land based victims' families could seek. As a result BP (BP), won't be able to get away with payments as low as $1,000 per death -- assuming the Senate takes similar action, which is not guaranteed.

First Hearing in the Anti-Health Care Lawsuits

The first anti-heath care reform lawsuit to have a day in court wasn't the multistate one: It was Virginia's. Like the multistate suit, Virginia challenges the constitutionality of health care reform's requirement that individuals buy insurance, which is called the "individual mandate." Thursday's hearing focused on the federal government's motion to dismiss the suit on the grounds that as a state rather than individual subject to the mandate, Virginia had no right to sue. The judge promised to rule on the motion within 30 days. If the federal government wins the motion to dismiss, the issue of whether the individual mandate is constitutional won't be reached -- at least, not by this lawsuit.

A similar motion may be made in the multistate suit, although that suit includes plaintiffs other than states, so it wouldn't result in the end of the case if the federal government won, just the removal of the states from the suit, unless all the other plaintiffs could be eliminated on the same basis. While the judge's ruling in the Virginia case won't be binding on the multistate suit, the convincingness of his opinion may foreshadow the outcome of any similar motions.

If either or both lawsuits survive the standing-based motions to dismiss, the anti-individual mandate claim will be reached. The argument is that the Commerce Clause does not give Congress the power to regulate inaction -- in this case,to punish people who don't buy health insurance. For its part, the federal government asserted the mandate was enacted under the Taxing Power. The individual mandate in the health care law is essential to its success, so if it is ultimately held to be unconstitutional, it's hard to see how we get national health care without a national single-payer system.

On a more comic note, a Virginia statute exempting its citizens from the health care reform law took effect Thursday -- except that it didn't: The Constitution's Supremacy Clause makes that argument an instant loser for anything beyond political grandstanding. Of course, that hasn't stopped other "red" states from copying Virginia.

And in the Business of Law ...

• The American Lawyer is out with its "A List"; unlike the AmLaw 100, the A List takes into account pro bono work and associate satisfaction. The top two firms: Munger, Tolles & Olson and Hughes, Hubbard & Reed. The four firms knocked off the list because their associates became very unhappy: Howrey; Irell & Manella; Kirkland & Ellis; and Sullivan & Cromwell. Ouch.

• Above the Law reports that DLA Piper next year's first-year associates in New York will get the standard $160,000 a year; first years since 2008 have been paid at below-market rates. ATL also reports on in-house counsel salaries, which, while generous by normal standards, are still far below big firm scales. For example, an in-house counsel with 21 years of experience gets $250,000/year; firm lawyers with that experience make several multiples of that. Still, in-house counsels work hours that enable them to have lives outside of the office. Finally ATL gives associates the best news they've had in awhile: Cahill Gordon is giving out midyear bonuses, a move sure to bring pressure on other firms to follow suit. Admittedly the sums are small -- less than a week's salary -- but free money is free money, and sure to be appreciated.