Civil justice (well, kind of) on the debate agenda.
I’ve said it before and will say it again, and again, if I need to. Civil justice—ordinary people being able to hold corporations accountable through the civil litigation system—should be a hot topic and top priority right now. Specifically, we need to know what our elected officials will do to even the playing field for ordinary Americans who’ve been mistreated by corporations, or even by the government.
Given our current economic climate, people clearly can’t afford to be scammed by corporations right now (i.e., through predatory lending, employment discrimination, dangerous products, unfairly “resolved” insurance claims, etc.). But their options for fighting back are dwindling: unfair rules in the legal system protect corporations from important consumer lawsuits and governmental regulation is virtually nil, even supportive of corporate abuse (until we reach crisis, at least). The bailout bill only illuminates just how unfair this is. I suppose that's why people at Tuesday's Presidential Debate kept asking: “Where’s our bailout? Where’s the bailout for the middle class?”
With that in mind I watched the debate to see if the candidates discussed civil justice issues that might help answer the question: where are the protections for ordinary Americans? Sure, they never used the words tort “reform”, civil justice, or lawsuits in the debate, but the candidates did give us a little something to work with.
First, the candidates discussed regulation. Obama identified deregulation of the financial markets as the biggest problem leading to the economic crisis, and McCain (his own ties and prior statements about so-called “government intrusion” notwithstanding, I guess) derailed cronyism and special interests in Washington. The role of regulation in curbing corporate power is an important aspect of any discussion about civil justice, because the ultimate concern of civil justice is with making sure people are treated fairly, protected from harm, and provided adequate redress when wrongfully injured. With neither public (governmental) nor private (individual citizens) regulation, we have no way to enforce people's protections under the law. So no civil justice = bad news for ordinary people. (TortDeform contributor Bill Childs gives more detail, writing about the debate and civil justice as a private form of regulation.)
Second, the candidates kept talking about the middle class (something DMI has emphasized for a while now, by the way!). I can’t count the number of times they said they’re concerned about ordinary people, and this is a good sign that issues that affect ordinary people are at minimum getting lip service from the candidates. That means that we have an opportunity to raise our voices about how civil justice issues affect ordinary people, not just the "trial lawyers" that the the right wing likes to obsess over. So let that be a signal that we should be writing to the campaigns, the newspapers, getting online, and talking with other people about how access to the courts is an important protection that ordinary people rely upon and cherish. (See the Memo to the Netroots on Civil Justice for some ideas).
Finally, Obama got very very close to an actual plank of the Pro Civil Justice Presidential Platform! He talked about how the government needs to crack down on insurance companies that are cheating their customers, stiffing consumers through fine print. And he emphasized the dearth of consumer protections for ordinary people who suffer as a result of insurance companies’ bad faith business practices. We at DMI wrote about the need to provide better regulation of the insurance industry here in our Election ’08 report. So now we have Obama on record essentially agreeing that something needs to be done here. If he’s elected, we have something we can hold him to!
So, we’ve identified a few glimmers of hope for advancing a progressive agenda for civil justice after the election, using what the candidates have said. Will the candidates walk the talk? Obama’s decision to co-sponsor the Service-members Access to Justice Act of 2008 (S.3432), which will protect military service members against being forced into arbitration in disputes with their employers, indicates some commitment on his part.
So at minimum we have reason to believe that "that one" cares about civil justice.