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To the end, Kennedy championed issues vital to trial attorneys

Sen. Edward Kennedy was possibly the most important lawmaker in Washington on issues that most directly affect trial lawyers and the cases they litigate.

In addition to being the force behind such landmark legislation as the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Occupational Safety and Health Act, in recent years as chairman of the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, Kennedy introduced or co-sponsored a bevy of bills to change the legal landscape for the nation’s attorneys, litigants, patients and employees.

Last spring, Kennedy introduced a bill that would reverse the Court’s holding in Riegel v. Medtronic, allowing common law claims challenging the safety and effectiveness of a medical device that received pre-market approval from the FDA. The measure is still pending before the Congress.

Kennedy also introduced legislation that for the first time allows the FDA to regulate tobacco products, which was signed into law this year by President Barack Obama.

Though he spent most of the past year away from Washington since being diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor, he still authored and co-sponsored a host of bills, including the The Healthy Families Act, filed in May, which would allow workers to earn paid sick time that can be used for themselves or to care for an ailing relative.

He was the Senate force behind the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which overturned the Supreme Court’s ruling in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. The law – the first signed by Obama – restarts statute of limitations for gender-based unequal pay claims would restart with the issuance of each unequal paycheck.

Kennedy also was a key sponsor of what would become the Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act, championed on the House side by his son, Rhode Island Rep. Patrick Kennedy, and signed into law in October by President George W. Bush. The law sought to end discrimination in insurance coverage for people with addiction and mental illness.

When Bush signed another Kennedy-sponsored bill into law – the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, which amended federal civil rights and employment laws to prohibit employers from discriminating against employees based on genetic information – Bush’s noted Kennedy’s role in the bill’s passage. “Senator Ted Kennedy … has worked for over a decade to get this piece of legislation to a President’s desk,” Bush said.

He was also behind the 2008 passage of the Higher Education Opportunity Act, which included a provision easing the student loan burdens of attorneys who enter the public service sector.

In 2007, he also blasted the Bush-appointed National Labor Relations Board over a series of opinions Kennedy and other lawmakers said eroded workers’ rights, calling the panel “most anti-worker, anti-labor, anti-union Board in its history.”

Kennedy also was a long serving member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and until he stepped down from that panel last year, he cast a committee vote on every Supreme Court nominee since William Rehnquist was nominated as an associate justice in 1971. During the failed Supreme Court bid of Robert Bork, Kennedy famously blasted the candidate, saying in his floor speech that “Robert Bork’s America is a land in which . . . the doors of the federal courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of citizens for whom the judiciary is often the only protector of the individual rights that are the heart of our democracy.”

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