Access to Justice

  • July 30, 2015

    by Nanya Springer

    Many people assume that an inevitable consequence of suing someone – or being sued – is a day in court.  After all, a trial by jury in most civil cases is a constitutional right under the Seventh Amendment.  However, fewer and fewer civil suits are resulting in jury trials—less than one percent of federal civil cases since 2005, down from 5.5 percent in 1962.  The trend continues at the state level, where courts have seen a 50 percent drop in jury and bench trials between 1992 and 2005.

    In order to study why the civil jury trial is disappearing, plaintiff’s attorney Stephen Susman, a member of the ACS Board of Advisors and former member of the ACS Board of Directors, has partnered with the New York University School of Law to found the Civil Jury Project.  Susman, who provided the initial funding for the project and will serve as its executive director, says, “The Project will examine why jury trials in civil cases are rapidly vanishing, whether trial by jury still serves a useful purpose in our complex society, and if so what – if anything – can be done to reverse the trend.”

    The first of its kind in the nation, the project was conceived because of Susman’s longstanding commitment to the jury trial right.  In light of the proliferation of binding arbitration clauses and other barriers to the courthouse, Susman has repeatedly expressed concerns about the “privatization of the justice system.”  While serving as executive director of the Civil Jury Project, Susman will continue practicing law full time and teaching law students how to try cases inexpensively—a vital skill for trial lawyers, considering todays’ skyrocketing litigation costs.

    The Project’s inaugural conference will take place on Friday, September 11 in New York. For more information, visit here.

  • July 24, 2015
    Video Interview

    by Nanya Springer

    Some talk this week centered on the issue of reforming the U.S. Supreme Court, with one irresponsible proposal gaining moderate attention, but Erwin Chemerinsky has been talking about fixing the Supreme Court for years.  In an interview with ACSblog, Chemerinsky ‒ the Distinguished Professor of Law and Raymond Pryke Professor of First Amendment Law at the University of California, Irvine School of Law ‒ describes the Supreme Court’s greatest failures and proposes responsible solutions.

    Chemerinsky recalls the Lochner Era ‒ a period during which the high court struck down more than 200 laws enacted to protect consumers and employees, using the rationale that such laws interfere with freedom of contract. While the Lochner Era ended nearly a century ago, Chemerinsky explains that today’s Roberts Court “is the most pro-business Supreme Court that we’ve had since the mid-1930s.”

    This claim, as Chemerinsky notes, is backed up by empirical studies. From restricting the availability of class action suits and favoring binding arbitration to weakening the influence of unions, the Roberts Court has consistently sided with corporations over consumers and employees—all while refusing to recognize poverty as a suspect classification and determining that education is not a fundamental right.

    Chemerinsky offers reasonable proposals, such as imposing 18-year nonrenewable term limits, allowing cameras inside the Court and insisting that the justices conform to the same ethical standards, particularly with regard to recusal, as judges on other courts.

    Watch the full interview here or below.

  • June 19, 2015

    by Nanya Springer

    For those who attended, the 2015 ACS National Convention was not only an opportunity to catch up with old friends, make new connections, and obtain CLE credits; it was also a time to reflect upon the important work that attorneys do every day and gain inspiration for the road ahead.  Speakers from across the country and from diverse professional backgrounds delved into the issues of the day, including voting rights, women’s access to reproductive health care, LGBT rights and marriage equality, access to counsel, and more.  Here are some highlights with links to high-quality video for those who missed the live event.

    Stephen Bright, president and senior counsel at the Southern Center for Human Rights, received a stirring round of applause when he encouraged students and young lawyers to represent unpopular clients, saying “we need to see the kinds of injustices that got . . . people where they are.” In attendance with Mr. Bright were Theo Shaw, one of the exonerated “Jena 6” who is now on his way to law school on a full scholarship, and Jarrett Adams, an exoneree who graduated from law school and will soon begin clerking for the court that exonerated him.

    Wendy Davis, women’s rights crusader and a former state Senator from Texas, discussed how rampant voter suppression has led to bad policies in her state, particularly concerning access to reproductive health care. “Women who lack the means to manage their fertility lack the means to manage their lives,” she declared. “It is just that simple.”

    Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder called for automatic registration of all eligible voters in the U.S., stating that “the ability to vote is a right, it is not a privilege.” He decried efforts to make voting less accessible, explaining that in-person voting fraud is very rare and no such widespread schemes have been detected.

    U.S. Representative Hakeem Jeffries discussed the ongoing need to address faulty police practices, including so-called “taxation by citation,” “stop and frisk,” and “broken windows” tactics that disproportionately target low-income people and communities of color.

    U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg drew laughs and applause during her conversation with California Supreme Court Justice Goodwin Liu. Speaking about her groundbreaking career, she said “I don’t think the meaning of feminism has changed,” it has always meant “girls should have the same opportunity to dream, aspire, achieve . . . as boys.” It’s about “women and men working together to help make society a better place.”

  • June 10, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Arthur BryantChairman of Public Justice

    * This post originally appeared on the blog for Public Justice

    Corporate America and irresponsible government officials consistently trash lawsuits as “frivolous” and trial lawyers as “greedy.” Why? Because lawsuits and trial lawyers hold them accountable when they abuse their power, break the law, and violate people’s rights.

    Want proof? Just look at the five finalists for Public Justice’s 2015 Trial Lawyer of the Year Award. This coveted honor goes annually to the lawyers who won the verdict or settlement that made the biggest contribution to the public interest in the past year.

    David v. Signal International

    In 2005, Signal International, a large contractor in Alabama and Mississippi, was hired to help rebuild the Gulf Coast in the wake of Hurricanes Rita and Katrina. It recruited nearly 500 pipefitters and welders from India with promises of good jobs and permanent U.S. residency. The recruits paid $10,000 to $25,000 just to be considered. But Signal brought them here on guest worker visas, with no possibility of residency; forced them to live in “man camps” on “the reservation,” with up to two dozen workers in a trailer with one bathroom; and deducted $1,050 monthly from their pay to do so. When Signal learned some workers were organizing to take action, they locked those workers in a trailer, terminated the leaders of the organizing movement and attempted to forcibly deport them. One became so distraught he attempted suicide.

    The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and a team of public interest and private attorneys fought for seven years – and continues to fight – to hold Signal accountable. When the judge would not let the case proceed as a class action, the SPLC recruited an extraordinary group of lawyers to represent hundreds of workers  in a dozen related lawsuits in multiple jurisdictions on a pro bono basis. David v. Signal International was the first to go to trial. Led by Alan Bruce Howard of Crowell & Moring in New York, with other attorneys from that firm, the SPLC, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, the Louisiana Justice Institute in New Orleans, and Sahn Ward Coschignano & Baker in Uniondale, NY, the lawyers navigated numerous complex challenges, including explaining immigration law to jurors and presenting testimony from workers who did not speak English. They won a unanimous $14 million jury verdict for five workers in a four-week trial. The jury found Signal had engaged in labor trafficking, fraud, racketeering and discrimination. This is the largest labor trafficking litigation in U.S. history. The David verdict is just the beginning. The claims of the other workers have yet to be heard.

  • May 19, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Reuben Guttman, partner, Guttman, Buschner & Brooks, PLLC; Guttman is a member of the ACS Board of Directors.

    *This piece originally appeared on The Global Legal Post.

    When the United States Supreme Court issued its decisions in Bell Atlantic Corp v Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007) and Ashcroft v Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009), there was sea change in the standard by which judges evaluated lawsuits to determine their sufficiency to withstand a motion to dismiss. Rather than merely placing a defendant on notice of a claim, the Court established a new standard. Plaintiffs must allege facts allowing a court to find that a claim is plausible. In reviewing the allegations of the complaint, courts are challenged to weed out conclusory statements and base their analysis on only the factual pleadings of the Complaint.

    Naturally, Iqbal and Twombly have raised serious access to justice issues for plaintiffs who must muster the facts without an opportunity to gather evidence through discovery. The “plausibility” standard is of course entirely subjective; what is plausible to one judge based on his or her life’s journeys may not be plausible to another. And with the challenge to plead facts, plaintiffs are undoubtedly encouraged to put the “kitchen sink” into their complaints and plead complaints that are exponentially larger than those of yesteryear.  

    With all of the problems caused by Iqbal and Twombly, there is a nugget of gold that can be snatched as a teaching lesson. The notion that litigants are instructed to make their cases based on facts and not conclusions or hyperbole, is a solid concept.