Presidential races are an exciting time for our country, offering an occasion for voters to reflect upon the values and principles that should guide our next leader as he or she addresses America’s most pressing challenges. Election 2008 provides hope that the next President will champion the causes of citizens, consumers, and communities through effective and fair policies. America needs a leader who will fight to preserve citizens’ civil and consumer rights while encouraging a responsive government and ethical, socially responsible business practices. America needs a pro-civil justice President.
At the forefront of the challenges our next President will face is the task of protecting Americans from unsafe products and unscrupulous business practices. Every day, the news headlines discuss a new food, medical device, pharmaceutical, or other product that consumers have trusted as safe, but which has harmed people or even ended lives. Sometimes these products comply with governmental regulations, and other times they do not. In either case, consumers need a means to hold corporations accountable for injuries over which they had no control. To meet this task, the next President must focus on improving the civil justice system.
The civil justice system allows citizens to advocate for their rights and protect themselves against undue harm through the public courts. It also provides meaningful incentives for businesses to pursue profits responsibly and legally and for governmental entities to function adequately: by avoiding harm to consumers, employees, and others, they avoid the financial and reputation-related consequences of being taken to court. Thus, the civil justice system ensures that everyone, even powerful corporations and our government, abides by the rule of law. It promises everyone, even average American citizens, access to justice.
Precisely because it protects people against corporate and governmental abuse, our civil justice system is under attack by corporate trade groups and the politicians they fund. Our current President ran his campaigns under the banner of tort “reform,” working aggressively to make it difficult for victims of corporate and governmental wrongdoing to find redress through the civil court system. Tort “reform” measures have chipped away at the substance of civil and consumer rights by placing limits on what a jury can award an injured plaintiff, allowing defendants to require plaintiffs to settle cases in secret even when this means hiding important information, and even keeping some aggrieved parties out of the courthouse altogether.
Who benefits from this attempt to dismantle the civil justice system? Parties like the home contractor that built uninhabitable homes yet never had to go to court; the hospital that misdiagnosed, mistreated, and disfigured a patient because of negligence, but barely felt any economic repercussions thanks to limits on jury awards; and the employer that broke federal law and fired its employee for his military status, but was able to stay out of federal court and go to a biased private arbitrator to settle the dispute in its favor.
The Drum Major Institute’s Pro-Civil Justice Presidential Platform outlines challenges in the civil justice system. These include: ensuring that Americans have access to adequate representation and to the courts; preventing corporations from hiding important information from the public through secret settlement agreements; preserving states’ power to protect their citizens’ rights; ensuring that the federal government properly regulates powerful industries; and improving patient safety so that fewer patients ever have to step foot in a courthouse, while preserving that option for those who need it. It is our hope that identifying these challenges will open up a focused discussion among the candidates as well as among voters on how to improve Americans’ lives by restoring their ability to advocate for their well-being.
This report also recommends common-sense policy solutions that will restore the promise of justice to the civil justice system. Some solutions involve acts of Congress that will require the next President’s leadership, while others will require the President’s commitment to increasing accountability in the federal agencies. All solutions will require the President’s commitment and support. Perhaps most importantly, these solutions also require that American voters ask candidates to stand for the public and then hold them accountable for fulfilling their promises. The Platform is discussed below.