This day marks the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and the civil rights march on Washington that forever changed America. The speech challenged the status quo; it demanded that all people, regardless of race, creed, color, religion or ethnic origin be treated equally. Dr. King’s speech didn’t say so, but he was talking about economic equality, as well. 50 years later, as an African American President of the United States takes the podium in the same spot where Dr. King delivered his epic speech, much has been accomplished. Sadly, however, there is still much to be done.
I have represented and/or championed the rights of the injured and disabled for all of my professional life. In the “good old days” (20-30 years ago), I could do so in a system that was more fair and balanced than it is today. America is a country with three important branches of government, Executive, Legislative, and Judicial. It is a country with a Constitution that seeks to promote liberty and justice for all. To do so effectively, the three powers, according to the Constitution, must be separate and act independently of each other. In other words, the Constitution mandates that government responsibility be divided into these three distinct branches and limits any one branch from engaging in the core functions of another. The intent, obviously, is to prevent a concentration of power to any one branch and to provide for a system of checks and balances. This separation of powers has served us well and has lasted well into the late 20th Century.
Unfortunately, beginning in the late 20th Century, the legislative branch began to decide that the judicial branch needs its assistance. Legislators (predominantly Republican, their campaigns heavily bankrolled by corporate interests) began to assert “corporate rights” over “individual rights”. This has taken many forms. Corporations were given tax breaks that individuals don’t receive. Corporations were excused from misconduct by poorly conceived legislation. Polluters, for instance, go unpunished. Crimes (like mortgage fraud) are committed by corporations, yet CEO’s go un-punished. These corporate types almost brought down our entire financial system but not a single CEO was prosecuted. And insurance companies, making billions and billions in profit, cry “lawsuit abuse”, line the pockets of legislators, and get “tort reform” in return.
What is “tort reform”, you ask? It is the legislative insertion of restrictions on litigation that prevents a judge or jury from being solely responsible for addressing the harm caused by one citizen against another or a corporation against a citizen. It is cleverly disguised by those who proffer it. Using terms like “frivolous lawsuit”, “run away juries”, “lawsuit abuse” or “jackpot justice”, these corporately financed “tort reformers” seek to limit the amounts of money a citizen can receive in damages from a judge or jury.
These “tort reformers” suggest that the system is swimming in a sea of “frivolous lawsuits” and needs, therefore, to cap the damages that citizens can recover. This is your prototypical red herring. “Frivolous” is defined as something that has “no serious purpose or value” which, of course, prompts this question: Why would something that is frivolous, having no serious value, require a cap on damages? The answer is, of course, that it does not. Tort reformers simply seek to take further advantage of the powerless.
But, paying small sums of money on smaller cases and large sums of money on large, serious, ones is not good enough for the corporate bottom line. Doing what a responsible corporate citizen should do (taking responsibility for one’s actions and fairly compensating those who one causes serious harm to) isn’t good for business. And, these days, if it isn’t good for business, it isn’t acceptable to conservative politicians. Who cares how the family of a deceased or paralyzed victim will support itself? Business is king in America. Conservative politicians pass tort reform and limit a person’s ability to support his/her family. At the same time, these same politicians seek to limit public assistance (entitlements) and overturn Obama Care. If laws prevent full compensation from the person or corporation responsible for the harm and additional laws prevent the receipt of benefits from the government, how are the victim and his family supposed to support themselves? The system creates another endless cycle of poverty, an economic inequality based upon disability. This doesn’t apply only to victims; it applies to all of us, because these seriously injured or disabled victims become a drain on our economic system. It also runs contrary to our Judeo-Christian values, doesn’t it? This is exactly the kind of inequality that Dr. King railed against 50 years ago today.
I have a dream today. I dream that all injured citizens will have unfettered access to a civil justice system that is apolitical. I dream that judges and juries are solely responsible, after a complete airing of facts and laws, for providing compensation to seriously injured victims. I dream that citizens who seek redress in the courts will no longer have to have justice determined by the political affiliations of the judges in charge. I dream that judges are elected or appointed by citizens, not politicians. I dream that all courts determine that all legislative attempts to restrict damages in civil cases are unconstitutional under the 7th Amendment of the Constitution. I dream that all injury victims will be judged by the severity of their injuries and the defendant’s behavior, not by political sway. I dream that justice shall be equal, regardless of whether you reside in a “blue” state or a “red” state or whether you live in the north, south east or west. I have a dream today, and only when all citizens rise up against injustice, any kind of injustice, will it ever come true.
Mark Bello is a Justice Pac member of the American Association for Justice, Sustaining and Justice Pac member of the Michigan Association for Justice, Member of Public Justice, Public Citizen, the American Bar Association, the State Bar of Michigan and the Injury Board.
Attorney, certified civil mediator, and award-winning author of the Zachary Blake Betrayal Series. Mark Bello is also a member of the State Bar of Michigan, a sustaining member of the Michigan Association for Justice, and a member of the American Association for Justice.