Access to Justice

  • December 31, 2014
    Guest Post

    by Leslie Bailey, Staff Attorney, and Paul Bland, Executive Director, Public Justice. This post first appeared at the Public Justice Blog.

    USA Today has run a startling and powerful editorial that shines a bright light on a dark practice. All too often, corporations that have manufactured defective and sometimes deadly products, or are engaged in other severely illegal behavior, ask courts to cover up the wrongdoing. Through the excessive use of secrecy orders, far too many courts have sealed evidence and allowed corporations to conceal facts that – if they had become publicly known – would have stopped dangerous and illegal behavior.

    In particular, USA Today focuses on the case of Rich Barber, whom we had the privilege of successfully representing in a challenge to abusive court secrecy. Rich’s son was killed because a Remington rifle had fired without the trigger being pulled due to a design defect that Remington knew about and concealed for decades. USA Today argues that a pattern developed over a number of cases: a particular plaintiff would discover key internal documents of the gun manufacturer relating to the defect and its knowledge, and Remington would settle the cases and demand (and get) broad secrecy orders sealing up the evidence. As a result, the public didn’t learn of the defect for many years, and many more people died. 

    USA Today notes that Rich Barber’s work, and that of Public Justice, helped break down this wall of secrecy. Rich championed important legislation in Montana that now restricts courts from sealing records in cases involving public safety.

    I urge you to read USA Today’s editorial in its entirety, and to share it with others. Its editorial board put the entire problem in perspective:

    Clever use of court secrecy – confidential settlements and ‘protective orders’ to seal documents – helped keep evidence of the rifle’s potential dangers under wraps. Had court documents been public, injuries might have been prevented and lives saved. 

  • December 5, 2014
    Guest Post

    by Paul Bland, Executive Director, Public Justice.

    *This post originally appeared on the blog for Public Justice.

    I regularly hear consumer and workers’-rights advocates say this crazy thing to me: “the cases on forced arbitration are so bad, they can’t get any worse.” Um, wrong. A Missouri Court of Appeals recently issued a decision that bears me out on this point, in Johnson v. Rent-A-Center.

    In this case,an 88-year-old “neighborhood staple”, Kenny Johnson, rents a refrigerator from Rent-A-Center.  A guy from Rent-A-Center comes out to the consumer’s house twice to service the refrigerator. Then, the guy came a third time, the plaintiff alleges, wearing a Rent-A-Center uniform. And, according to the lawsuit and news reports, the Rent-A-Center guy, Eric Patton, seriously beat the man with gashes to his head and robbed him. He wasn’t discovered for three days. The assailant has been criminally charged.

    So in the mouse print of the “agreement” the consumer had to sign to rent the refrigerator was a forced arbitration provision. The forced arbitration provision says that the arbitrator, not a court, will decide when the arbitration clause applies to some dispute. But in this case, the consumer makes a pretty strong point: he went to Rent-A-Center to get a refrigerator, he didn’t go there requesting that they send a guy to his house to beat him up and rob him.

    Too bad, the court says. Listing some very pro-corporation U.S. Supreme Court decisions, the Missouri court holds that it has to enforce the arbitration clause, and let the arbitrator decide whether the dispute over the guy beating up the consumer is covered by the consumer’s contract about renting the refrigerator.  In fairness to the Missouri Court of Appeal, it directly stated that it was bound to follow a U.S. Supreme Court decision, “regardless of whether we agree with the reasoning expressed therein.”

  • December 4, 2014
    Guest Post

    by Neil Kinkopf, Professor of Law, Georgia State University. He also serves on the Georgia Lawyer Chapter Board of Advisors.

    The predictable calls for impeachment went up after President Obama announced his actions on immigration last week. To the surprise of no one, the calls issued exclusively from the president’s Republican detractors. Such partisan calls for impeachment are easily dismissed. In a recent New York Times op-ed, however, Professor Peter Schuck of the Yale Law School lent credibility to the legal basis for these claims, arguing that the president’s action satisfies the constitutional predicate for impeachment (though he advocates that Congress exercise its discretion to decline impeachment).  His argument is worthy of attention, though it fails utterly. 

    The Constitution sets forth the grounds for impeachment:  “The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”  Nowhere in the document, however, is the phrase “other high Crimes and Misdemeanors” defined. This absence of a legal definition has led some to conclude that the House of Representatives may impeach for any reason at all. Then-Congressman Gerald Ford gave this idea its most famous articulation:  “an impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history ….”  Professor Schuck falls squarely in this camp, declaring “it is pretty much up to Congress to define and apply ‘high crimes and misdemeanors.’” 

    This Nietzschean view (Law is dead, therefore all is permitted) is deeply flawed. Most significantly, it is at odds with the original understanding of the impeachment power. The framers adopted the language “high crimes and misdemeanors” precisely to avoid leaving it “pretty much up to Congress” to decide for itself what constitutes an impeachable offense. During the drafting convention, George Mason suggested that the president be impeachable for “maladministration.” James Madison objected to this formulation on the grounds that it would undermine the independence of the president: “[s]o vague a term will be equivalent to a tenure during pleasure of the Senate.” The constitutional convention then settled on the familiar “high crimes and misdemeanors” language as a way of making sure the standard for impeachment would not be infinitely malleable. 

  • November 24, 2014
    Guest Post

    by Brandon L. Garrett, Professor of Law, University of Virginia School of Law. Since the 2011 publication of Convicting the Innocent: Where Criminal Prosecutions Go Wrong, Professor Garrett has written widely on issues of criminal procedure, scientific evidence, corporate crime, and the law. This fall, Harvard University Press published his new book, Too Big to Jail: How Prosecutors Compromise with Corporations.

    “He’s a grown man today, he was just a boy back then,” said Ricky Jackson upon his release from prison last week.  “I don’t hate him.” Jackson spent 39 years behind bars, more than any other person exonerated in the U.S., according to the National Registry of Exonerations. Jackson was speaking of the 12 year-old who had identified him and two others as murderers, and whose testimony in 1975 sent him to Ohio’s death row. Last week, the eyewitness admitted his testimony was “all lies.” There was no other evidence in this case: no forensic evidence, physical evidence, or other witnesses.  The exoneration highlights just how malleable eyewitness testimony can be, and how important it is to get it right. 

    This Fall, the National Academy of Sciences published an important report “Identifying the Culprit: Assessing Eyewitness Identification.” I was a member of the committee that produced the report. The report evaluates decades of research on eyewitness memory and it details scientific procedures that can help to prevent error. 

  • September 10, 2014

    by Caroline Cox

    Ian Millhiser in ThinkProgress and Todd C. Frankel in The Washington Post explain how the Affordable Care Act has impacted major and minor health decisions in everyday life, and the potential cost of Halbig to these changes.

    Michael McGough writes for the Los Angeles Times on the details of last week’s decision from U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman on the constitutionality of Louisiana’s ban on same-sex marriage.

    A new plan to reduce court fees in Ferguson, Mo. could help ease tensions in the city, reports Joseph Shapiro of National Public Radio.

    Erin Fuchs explains for Business Insider why the Supreme Court is examining the issue of prison beards and what it could mean for First Amendment interpretation.

    Mark Joseph Stern of Slate examines why Supreme Court justices sometimes rely on made-up facts for their decisions.