Who's afraid of free speech?

The SE Texas Record Apr. 8, 2007, 6:00am

"Junk science," during the reigning "sue everybody" era of American jurisprudence, has been the trial bar's best friend.

So we didn't know whether to laugh or cry when we heard Beaumont mega-millionaire plaintiff's lawyer Walter Umphrey recently deriding the concept as unholy.

Umphrey says three Stowell residents frivolously cited "junk science" in their public objections to a proposed drainage project in southwest Jefferson County. In a lawsuit against them, he claims the men tried to convince the Army Corps of Engineers not to approve the required permits, insidiously hiring "lawyers and experts" to "misrepresent" his clients' side of the story.

Coming from a man who makes his bones doing precisely this for a living, we'll file Mr. Umphrey's feigned indignation under "it takes one to know one."

"Junk science" refers to the portrayal of faulty data or analysis as scientific, so as to advance one's own agenda. Umphrey says his targets-- brothers William and Steven White and Laird Finch-- are using it to show the drainage project will adversely impact their land. He dubs their claims "shams."

We don't profess ourselves to be expert enough to know who's telling the truth. But we do find it an ironic criticism coming from Umphrey. Such tactics are most famously used not by environmentalist citizens but by trial lawyers like him in court, as they try to convince judges or juries to hand them giant verdicts.

That's like when Houston lawyer and former Umphrey colleague John O'Quinn claimed silicone from breast implants was making women sick, causing diseases like cancer and lupus. That there was no scientific basis behind O'Quinn's claims didn't stop him from suing the implant makers, bankrupting one and earning himself hundreds of millions of dollars.

Today, now that actual scientific research has been conducted into their long-term health effects, silicone implants are legal, widely used and considered absolutely safe. An uber-rich O'Quinn remains unrepentant. But real science, in the end, trumped his "junk."

Rather than trying to muzzle their critics by dragging them into court, Umphrey and his clients might try the same approach here. Fight darkness with light. That is, if they believe their own claims.

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