Yes We Must… Keep Fighting For Civil Justice
Well, there we go folks. President-Elect Barack Obama has made history. But what does an Obama administration mean for progressives and other Americans committed to protecting people's legal rights and protections through the civil courts? Lots to reflect upon, but I just want to point out two thoughts, inspired from Obama's (amazing) speech last night.
First: strengthening access to the courts in an Obama administration will require continued, diligent advocacy work. As I've blogged about in the past, Obama has a mixed record when it comes to civil justice. To his credit, he supports protecting veterans from the dangers of binding mandatory arbitration, increasing patient safety in hospitals, and higher accountability for insurance companies and other Wall Street entities. But he also voted in favor of the Class Action Fairness Act and has framed civil justice issues as "trial lawyer" causes, even though the interests and legal protections of ordinary people are really what's at stake here.
Given this mixed record, who knows just how supportive Obama would be of a Pro-Civi Justice agenda? I don't. But, we do know that he has pledged to listen. Last night he said:
There are many who won't agree with every decision or policy I make as President, and we know that government can't solve every problem. But I will always be honest with you about the challenges we face. I will listen to you, especially when we disagree. And above all, I will ask you join in the work of remaking this nation the only way it's been done in America for two-hundred and twentyone years — block by block, brick by brick, calloused hand by calloused hand.
So we need to speak up, then act. Describing his win as "only the chance" to make change, a chance dependant on willing and dedicated people working to get it done, Obama reminds those actively engaged in civil justice work--civil and consumer rights lawyers, community activists, law and policy bloggers, etc.--that some serious dialogue and groundwork lies ahead. (See here for my July memo to bloggers on how we can get to work)
Second thought: on the usefulness of appealing to values like community, democracy, and patriotism, values that both describe the best parts of what our country stands for and the spirit of the civil justice movement. Folks over at Commonweal Institute have written about this values-driven dialogue. It would do the civil justice community well to make a commitment to making this connection in our everyday advocacy work. From Obama's speech:
So let us summon a new spirit of patriotism; of service and responsibility where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves, but each other. Let us remember that if this financial crisis taught us anything, it's that we cannot have a thriving Wall Street while Main Street suffers — in this country, we rise or fall as one nation; as one people.
Here's an example of making the connection: no longer should corporate interests get the benefit of the doubt in our legal system while ordinary people get blocked out of not only the courtroom, but the entire courthouse and political process that establishes rules governing lawsuits. Such harmful policies don't just hurt individuals, they are an assault on American values. Civil justice advocates must work together, remain energized around these issues, and continue to make vividly clear the connection between these values and the value of protecting ordinary people's access to the courts. This will help illuminate just how ridiculous the empty "trial lawyer" rhetoric that gets tossed about--even by Obama--is. And it will open the way for productive discussion about how to improve our legal system.
Well, there's much more one could say, and much more we will say, but that's it for now. In the meantime, what do you think? Have we elected a Pro Civil Justice President? We'll have to wait and see. Or, more accurately, we'll have to act and see.