Access to Justice

  • October 18, 2013
    Guest Post
     
    The U.S. Supreme Court this week heard argument in DaimlerChrysler AG v. Bauman, a case arising out of the Dirty War in Argentina. The plaintiffs allege that Daimler, the German automaker, is responsible for the disappearance and torture of workers at a Mercedes-Benz plant in Argentina, because plant managers identified union leaders and others as “subversives” who were then targeted for persecution. This case is worth watching, because it could herald broad new protections for multinational corporations that enjoy the privilege of doing business in the United States.
     
    The focus of the Supreme Court hearing, however, was not on the substance of the claims, but on whether Daimler can be sued in the United States at all. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Daimler could be sued in California because its subsidiary Mercedes-Benz USA (MBUSA) does extensive business in California, and MBUSA’s activities could be attributed to Daimler. My organization, EarthRights International, submitted an amicus brief on the side of the Bauman plaintiffs, arguing that the Constitution does not require courts to treat corporations and their subsidiaries separately for jurisdictional purposes, especially where they are economically integrated.
     
    Several justices seemed hostile to the victims of torture and disappearance, but they did not suggest a coherent rationale for dismissing the case. Few seemed to want to constitutionalize a rule of corporate separateness, but most expressed some discomfort with the case.
     
    What’s at stake here is essentially whether Congress, or any U.S. state, has the power to tell a corporation: “If you do business here, even if it’s through a subsidiary, victims of your crimes in other countries can sue you here.” In this case, the abuses are torture and disappearance; in another case it might be selling chemical weapons. Do we really want to establish a constitutional rule that a company that sells chemical weapons to a foreign regime can exercise the privilege of doing business in the United States without submitting to justice from its victims?
  • October 11, 2013
    Guest Post

    by Arthur Bryant, Executive Director, Public Justice

    Two years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court let Wal-Mart block its female workers’ sex discrimination claims in Wal-Mart v. Dukes by changing the rules governing class actions. Next Tuesday, Wal-Mart will ask the Court to block its workers’ long-term disability claims in Heimeshoff v. Hartford Life & Accident Insurance Co. and Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., by changing the rules governing statutes of limitations, too. The company is arguing, believe it or not, that the statute of limitations to sue it for wrongfully denying long-term disability benefits starts running shortly after the claims for benefits are submitted, long before it rules on them (much less denies them), and long before the injured workers could ever file a case in court.

    As Public Justice’s Matt Wessler will tell the Court and our briefs explain in detail, we think Wal-Mart is wrong. So does the U.S. Government, which has filed an amicus brief agreeing with us --and disagreeing with Wal-Mart -- on every issue in the case.

    Every first-year law student learns that statutes of limitations, which set a time limit on how long a person has to sue, don’t start running -- can’t start running, as a matter of common sense -- until a person suffers a wrong and could actually file a case in court. If someone tries to sue before that, his or her case will be thrown out. As the Supreme Court has long said, “All statutes of limitation begin to run when the right of action is complete...” Clark v. Iowa City, 20 Wall. 583, 589 (1875). Indeed, the Court has “repeatedly recogn

    ized that Congress legislates against the standard rule that the limitations period commences when the plaintiff has a complete and present cause of action.” Graham Cnty. Soil & Water Conservation Dist. v. United States ex rel. Wilson, 545 U.S. 409, 418 (2005).  

    Under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, or ERISA, the federal law that governs Wal-Mart’s long-term group disability insurance plan (administered by Hartford), injured workers seeking benefits have to file a claim for them, submit “proof of loss” (evidence they are entitled to the benefits that is supposed to be filed within 60 days

    of the claim), and go through an internal claims resolution process, including an internal appeal. Until they do that and lose the appeal, their claim is not officially denied -- and they cannot file a suit in court. That makes sense because the lawsuit ERISA authorizes is for wrongful denial of benefits.

    Julie Heimeshoff worked for Wal-Mart for almost 20 years, rising to the position of Senior Public Relations manager. When Ms. Heimeshoff began suffering from significant pain and fatigue, she had trouble working. She was later diagnosed with fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, lupus, and several other chronic pain sources. In June 2005, her pain became so severe that she had to stop working altogether. She sought benefits and, after a long internal process, her claim was denied. The statute of limitations was three years and, less than three years later, she filed suit.

  • September 23, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    UNC Law School Professor Gene Nichol earlier this year at a Harvard symposium on the legacy of Gideon v. Wainwright and the state of funding for indigent defense blasted the legal system’s treatment of the poor.

    Poor litigants, criminal or civil, more often than not are treated unequally before the law. “Despite our perpetual boasts, we turn out to be the effective adversary to equality; outposts, comforter, companion, and the better to marginalization,” Nichol said.

    This year marks the 50th Anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright, the landmark Supreme Court case that held the Sixth Amendment’s right to counsel means that criminal defendants have a constitutional right to counsel whether they can afford it or not. That case placed a mandate on the States to ensure that poor criminal defendants are provided legal representation. But as Nichol and others have noted, such as ACS’s Caroline Fredrickson, too many States have fallen woefully short of ensuring that poor criminal defendants have access to competent counsel.

    In an interview earlier this year with ACSblog, Stephen Bright, head of the Southern Center for Human Rights, provided his thoughts, in some ways similar to Nichol’s, about the state of indigent defense. Like Nichol, Bright noted the nation’s and legal profession’s callousness toward the poor.

    Bright (pictured) said, “One would think that if the court said this is what the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, the right to counsel, that this is what it means – that the state has to provide a lawyer that the states would have done that. But Gideon has been treated as an unfunded mandate.”

    So why have many States given short-shrift to funding of indigent defense services? Likely, Bright said, the answer lies with a society that has remained indifferent, at best, to poverty.

    “When Robert F. Kennedy was attorney general, he said the poor person accused of a crime has no lobby,” Bright noted. “That’s exactly right. There’s no constituency.”

  • September 20, 2013
     
    During a week when many groups and individuals are celebrating the signing of the U.S. Constitution -- September 17 is Constitution Day -- it is appropriate to take note of how far we have fallen short of fulfilling certain fundamental rights promised in our governing document.
     
    As Dean Erwin Chemerinsky noted in this ACSblog post, we are not just celebrating the signing of a parchment, we are actually taking note of how the Constitution has "been interpreted and implemented over the course of American history."
     
    There are examples of where the judiciary has misinterpreted the broad language of the Constitution or where states have faltered or failed in implementation of constitutional mandates, but let's take one example that provides a stark picture of a nation failing to live up to a promise of genuine equality before the law. Let's look at the Sixth Amendment's right to counsel.
     
    Fifty years ago this year, in a landmark opinion, Gideon v. Wainwright, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Sixth Amendment's right to counsel means that people in danger of losing liberty have a right to counsel, even if they cannot afford it. In his majority opinion, Justice Hugo Black observed, "The right of one charged with crime to counsel may not be deemed fundamental and essential to fair trials in some countries, but it is in ours. From the very beginning, our state and national constitutions and laws have laid great emphasis on procedural and substantive safeguards designed to assure fair trials before impartial tribunals in which every defendant stands equal before the law. This noble ideal cannot be realized if the poor man charged with crime has to face his accusers without a lawyer to assist him."
     
  • September 9, 2013
    Guest Post

    by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.). Sen. Whitehouse is a member of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, as well as the Budget Committee, Environment and Public Works Committee, Judiciary Committee and the Special Committee on Aging.

    James Madison famously observed in Federalist 39 that our American experiment depends on “the capacity of mankind for self-government.”  History has vindicated Madison’s faith in the American people, but we must not grow complacent.  Recent Supreme Court decisions, for example, have undermined Americans’ ability to participate in our system of self-government by opening the floodgates to corporate cash in our elections and eliminating the provision of the Voting Rights Act that has protected millions of Americans from discriminatory voting practices.  Another institution within our system of self-government – the civil jury – is also under attack and is disappearing, with little fanfare.  It is time to sound the alarm.

    As I recently explained in the National Law Journal, the civil jury came to the United States with the earliest colonists.  It provided a means of self-government for Americans who chafed under British rule, and its preservation was vital to the founding generation.  Consequently, the Seventh Amendment  protected access to the civil jury, which serves, in the words of Alexis De Tocqueville, as a “political institution” and “one form of the sovereignty of the people.”

    Unlike other institutions of government which can be dominated by the rich and the well-connected, the civil jury puts all citizens equal before the law.  As Sir William Blackstone observed, the jury “preserves in the hands of the people that share, which they ought to have in the administration of public justice, and prevents the encroachments of the more powerful and wealthy citizens.”  The Founders wished to assure that when the executive is corrupt, when powerful interests have the legislature tied in knots, and when the press has turned against you, the hard square corners of the jury box still stand strong.