William Daniels

Remembering the American Roots of Civil Justice

My family goes back to the American Revolution on one side, with an immigrant married in just about every generation on the other (so our tradition goes). That makes me especially tuned in to how precious pillars of freedom like our civil justice system really are.

Some of my judge friends have spent the past several years traveling to eastern europe to help countries in the former Soviet bloc fashion justice systems of their own from scratch. I've always thought it amusing that the very thing American corporate interests try to take away -- the right to a day in court and a jury trial -- are things that former totalitarian societies are hungry for, yet that seems to be the fact.

Case in point turned up in a news item that ran on the AP wire today. I'm quoting it in full because it illustrates the point:

MOSCOW - Returning home after an absence can mean unpleasant surprises — a leaky roof, a pet's mess, even a break-in. But a Russian woman got a nastier surprise when she returned from her country house: Her home was gone, torn down mistakenly by construction workers clearing a site, according to a report Thursday on NTV television.

"There was nothing left, not even a log," Lyudmila Martemyanova said, bundled against the cold and standing on a snow-covered lot in the center of the Volga River city of Nizhny Novgorod.

A local prosecutor, Nikolai Govorkov, said a construction company tore down the wrong building — Martemyanova's, instead of one nearby that was marked for demolition.

Many Russians have faced what they say are unfair and inadequately compensated evictions from older housing being torn down amid the country's oil-revenue-fueled construction boom.

Martemyanova's case is extreme, however, and she has taken it to court. She refused the builder's offer of money, saying it wasn't enough even to get a room on the outskirts of the city, and has sued.

Court hearings started Thursday. Meanwhile, she's shuttling back and forth between her daughter's and her sister's, she told NTV.

If you're a history buff, you recognize that stuff like this happened in the last century in the U.S. Coal or mining companies would destroy personal property pretty much at whim. There were a few massacres when regular folks tried to resist the power of the companies. Compensation, when it was offered, was generally much less than the suffering victim lost. It was a system where might made right and justice was something for the privileged, not the people.

I hope Ms. Marternyanova gets enough from her court case to replace what she lost. I hope Americans are wise enough not to give up something precious -- a system of civil justice that our founders felt strongly enough to enshrine in federal and state constitutions. Folks used to say, "If you don't like it here, go to Russia." I like it here plenty. I don't want our country to be like Russia (or China). I love America and civil justice is part of her core.

Visit Bill Daniels at or go to his blog at

William Daniels: Author Bio | Other Posts
Posted at 10:58 AM, Jan 28, 2008 in Civil Justice
Permalink | Email to Friend


This sort of thing does happen here only it's called eminent domain.

And guess who are the biggest supporters ? Well - in KELO vs. NEW LONDON it was Scalia, Thomas, Rehnquist and O'Connor who stood up for the little guy, not the left wing of the bench

Posted by: Paul W Dennis | January 28, 2008 5:54 PM

precisely why tort deform is, or at least should be, a bi-partisan or a non-partisan issue. the people who you'd think would stand up for the little guy, don't always do it.

Posted by: Kia | January 28, 2008 5:56 PM