Story on Forbes.com called Courts Gone Wild attacking the legal system. The bad guys in this story are judges (a regular target of tort reformers) and the poor. Of course, as with most tort reformers the author leads off with scary stories, but like most tort reformers, the author only tells a part of the story. The part they like.

The article leads off with the story of the guy who sued a dry cleaner for millions of dollars, because they lost his pants. It was a silly lawsuit. The author fails to say that the system worked, because the case was found to be without merit. The plaintiff was ordered to pay the dry cleaner’s court costs. In addition, the plaintiff, a judge, may lose his job over this. Hardly a case of the system not working.

Next example of the out of control legal system in this country is the “bizarre” story of Mary Meckler, a woman who was attacked by a squirrel in an outdoor mall and sued the mall for the squirrel’s actions. Of course it is an outrageous lawsuit that doesn’t pass the smell test. That is why it was dismissed by the judge. But the article doesn’t mention that fact. The legal system worked, the bogus claim was dismissed.

But those facts aren’t good for a story about an out of control legal system.  Citizens use the judicial branch of government to right wrongs.  The system is there for everyone.  When someone brings an action that is without merit, the system kicks the case out.  In the two cases mentioned above the system was not broken, the system worked. 

After stirring the readers up with these half told tales, the author of the article turns to his real purpose, an attack on judges and the poor. The article attacks elected judges with the following statement: “To an elected judge, a plaintiff is a constituent. And what better form of constituent service than to take money from an out-of-state corporate defendant and give it to an in-state plaintiff?” This is a ridiculous statement and an insult to the thousands of elected judges in this country who work their tails off every day to hand down thoughtful well reasoned decisions. The judges I know believe it is their duty to be fair and just. No wonder former Justice O’Conner is concerned about the war on the judiciary in this country (see prior post).

The article cites the following factoid: a “study” found that verdicts against out of state defendants in jurisdictions with an elected judiciary are 42% higher than in states which have appointed judges. Then the article makes this statement: “Such awards help judges get re-elected.” Is this because the person who gets this “out of state money” votes for the judge? The article doesn’t have stats on the number of people receiving large verdicts in the cases it refers to, but I would dare say it is a minuscule portion of the electorate and may account for a part of a percent of all voters. A very ineffective way to buy votes and probably not a very realistic political strategy. But good fodder for a tort reform article.

The article next attacks the fact that lawyers give judges campaign contributions. There are many reasons lawyers contribute to judicial campaigns. Lawyers in fact know the judicial candidates better than most others in the community. Lawyers have colleagues and enemies running in any given election and may have worked with a candidate in some way in the past. Lawyers know which candidate is levelheaded and which candidate could not be trusted to thoroughly research an issue. Plus lawyers have to practice in front of these judges.

Yes, lawyers are concerned about electing quality judges. Rather than assigning a nefarious motive to this activity, which also makes for a less titillating story, the tort reformer could have said lawyers want to elect judges who will treat their clients fairly. Oh, the story fails to mention that the lawyers who contribute to judges are both plaintiff lawyers and defense lawyers. Meaning – both sides of the tort reform issue give money to judicial campaigns. (See the Alabama and Texas Supreme Court elections of the last ten years for an example of tort reformers spending millions on judicial elections).

Next the article states we have an out of control legal system because of the poor, the portion of society who has no voice. The article cited a study which put awards in counties with less than 5% poverty at an average of $400,000. Counties with poverty rates greater than 35% had awards that averaged $2.6 million. If I were researching this issue, I would forget about trying to find faults in the legal system and start wondering how we can have areas with 35% poverty rates in this great country.

So judges and the poor are ruining our legal system. Judges are buying our votes by awarding us all big judgments. Lawyers are buying these rulings with campaign contributions (note: the article doesn’t explain why judges need campaign contributions when they are buying votes by handing out huge verdicts). The poor cannot be trusted to serve on juries. Sounds like the answer is to allow the big corporations who funded these studies to police themselves and only pay for the damage they cause when they feel like it.

Judges do not deserve this type of disrespect. They work too hard, often for too little pay. Lawyers do not deserve to be accused of buying justice. Lawyer jokes are ok, but to accuse lawyers in states that elect judges of buying justice is wrong. And the poor, a boogie man people pull out when they want to scare the masses, do not deserve to be made a scapegoat for corporate sponsored tort reform propaganda. The poor deserve respect and deserve to be helped. Period.

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