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Elizabeth Warren defends work on asbestos lawsuit

Democratic candidate for Senate also gives tentative support to ballot questions on medical marijuana, physician-assisted suicide

During a wide-ranging hour-long radio interview today, Democratic Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren defended her representation of an insurance company in an asbestos lawsuit, and indicated tentative support for medical marijuana and physician-assisted suicide, two issues that will appear on the November ballot in Massachusetts.

“If there’s something a physician can prescribe that can help someone who is suffering, I am in favor,” Warren said when asked about the medical marijuana ballot question, adding that there have to be the “right restrictions.”

Discussing another ballot question that would legalize assisted suicide, Warren said she “turns in the direction” of wanting to give dying patients “autonomy” in making end-of-life decisions.


Warren’s Republican opponent, US Senator Scott Brown, opposes the medical marijuana question and says he hasn’t made up his mind on the assisted suicide question.

Warren made the declarations during an interview on WTKK-FM in which she was repeatedly pressed on subjects she prefers to downplay, notably the asbestos lawsuit, her Harvard records, and her professed Native American heritage.

Brown has attacked her for representing Travelers Insurance in a 2009 lawsuit, saying her work on behalf of a corporate client undercuts her reputation as a consumer advocate.

In the case, Warren defended Travelers as it sought protection from future claims as part of an agreement that would also unlock a $500 million settlement for asbestos victims, a step many victims supported. After Warren’s work on the case ended, however, Travelers won another court ruling that allowed it to avoid paying victims. That ruling is under appeal.

A Harvard Law School expert in bankruptcy law, Warren insisted she had no way of knowing that, after she left the case, Travelers would seek to avoid paying victims from the settlement. “After I left the case, the lower court made the wrong decision,” she said on the “Jim and Margery Show.”


She said the idea behind allowing Travelers to unlock the trust was to guarantee that “everyone gets compensated.” She pointed out that that plaintiffs’ lawyers in the case and asbestos workers’ unions have said her advocacy in the case helped protect the settlement for victims.

Warren’s lengthy answers, however, often relied on legal language that underscored why the case has been difficult for her to defend in the midst of a campaign.

“It was going to the Supreme Court on a specific question,” Warren said, trying to explain the case at one point, “and the question was: will trusts survive as a legal tool?”

Pressed by host Jim Braude to release a list of other corporate clients she has represented, Warren said,“I don’t have it.”

She also faced a series of questions about her decision, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, to identify herself as a Native American in a legal directory that is often used by law school recruiters. Warren pointed out that her family members have long believed they are part Cherokee and part Delaware, although she has no written documentation of those roots.

“This is part of who I am,” she said. “I can’t deny who I am.”

But she added, “I didn’t use it for any personal benefit.”

She declined, however, to release her personnel records from Harvard, which Braude said could put the issue to rest.

Warren replied that questions about her heritage have already been asked and answered, and she pointed out that the people who hired her at Harvard Law School have said her heritage played no role.


Warren got a few chances to poke Brown during the interview.

Asked about whether the senator benefits politically from his model good looks, Warren said he “doesn’t look as cute” when he votes against President Obama’s jobs bills.

Warren also dismissed Brown’s support for a balanced budget amendment, saying her plans have been shown to cut more from the deficit than Brown’s plans – and “not through tricks.”

Warren also weighed in on the Emmy Awards on Sunday night. She said her favorite show is “Homeland.” She did not mention that Obama, with whom she often aligns herself politically, has also called the show one of his favorites.