Justice by Junket or Justice for All?

In the recent past, America’s civil justice system has been losing the public relations battle. From demonizing lawyers to ridiculing jurors, special interest groups bent on the eradication—or at least the severe curtailing—of the right to trial by jury have relentlessly pressured state and federal legislators to enact laws which carry out their agenda.

This effort by groups, which include insurance conglomerates, drug companies, and big business cartels, has led to a myriad of proposed legislative "fixes" which, it is argued, are meant to increase the fairness of our judicial process.

In reality, they are calculated to prevent injured parties from obtaining redress for the harms they have suffered at the hands of wrongdoers. The "solutions" proposed by legislators doing the bidding of these special interest groups include artificial caps on damages, draconian limits on liability, and dramatically shortened periods of time in which suits must be filed.

Undoubtedly, there are reforms that will improve the operation of the civil justice system. But in the wake of the lobbying scandal that is currently consuming Washington, one has to question whether the Congress is qualified to criticize the "fairness" of the civil justice system.

Imagine if Americans were unfortunate enough to have a court system that mirrored Congress and many state legislative bodies. Just suppose that you are a party to a case, the outcome of which will have a significant impact on your future. While you are in the process of trying to litigate your claims, your opponent’s attorney begins taking the presiding judge to the local country club for expensive dinners. Additionally, on the weekends, your adversary is flying the jurors to exotic locales for golf outings, titillating massages, and unlimited libation.

For those jurors who have meager means, the opposing party is supplementing their income by employing their spouses in cushy jobs which provide lots of income for little work. Further, during the course of the trial, whenever the proceedings break for lunch, the other attorney is speaking with the judge and jury outside of your presence, explaining why he should win the case. Not surprisingly, the jury’s verdict is adverse to your position.

Most fair-minded people recoil at this scenario because bias, favoritism and bribes are wholly incompatible with achieving a just result in a contested claim.

The example we have envisioned should be no less shocking in the judicial context than it ought to be in the legislative context, yet sadly it is an increasingly accurate picture of today’s Congress. And if the special interests have their way, the civil justice system will soon begin to look more and more like the congressional system where the outcome is determined in advance, and the process is just "eye wash" for the public.

People in quest of a just society should resist the efforts of the special interests to turn the civil justice system into a kangaroo court designed to serve the agendas of the rich and powerful. If the promise of equal justice for all is to be realized by the American people, the courts must be equally accessible to rich and poor alike. Jurors must be free to render their verdict on the basis of the law and evidence without fear or favor influencing their judgment. Outcomes must not be determined in advance by special interests who tip the law in their favor. You can’t get justice if one party has their thumb on the scale.

When pondering the future of the civil justice system, legislators would do well to heed the words of the prophet Isaiah, who declared: "Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people… (Isa. 10:1-2, NIV).

Congress should clean up its own act before enacting "reforms" that damage the civil justice system and disserve the cause of justice in our society.