Civil Lawsuits are the Last Empowerment for the Citizen

I remember sitting at the dinner table in Kingsport, Tennessee one night around 1996– a restless and rebellious college student– engaged (as usual) in a spirited debate with my own father and some family friends. They were making fun of lawyers and “frivolous lawsuits”, a common topic fueled by the “McDonald’s coffee lawsuit” myth. If you haven’t already, please take a minute to watch this video (here) and get the facts on that case, rather than the sensationalized media myth. Anyway, I remember (fresh off a course in civics or American history, I’m sure) making the argument that the judiciary and, specifically, the lawsuit, were the last vestiges of citizen empowerment left in our country. Let me explain (with the caveat that I’m oversimplifying and recognize it):

Our government, as we all know, is composed of three branches, as well as a system of checks and balances. The two branches that are supposed to “represent the people” are the executive and the legislative. Those branches are elected officials that are, in theory, accountable to the voters and, hence, the citizenry. However, anyone with half a brain (even an argumentative college student) knows that these two branches are bought and sold by corporations and lobbyists. Further, these branches are exclusively controlled by two parties– a fact that is underscored by facts (here) and my own anecdotal experience working as an intern for a Democratic congressman the summer of 1995. I remember vividly when families, veterans, and ordinary citizens would come to this congressman’s office to visit or voice their opinions. They were sent to me– a 21-year-old college student intern. In stark contrast, when the Exxon lobbyists, health insurance lobbyists, and other corporate cronies showed up, they were immediately ushered back into the congressman’s office for whiskey and “good ole boy locker room banter” (at least that’s what I imagined happened behind the closed doors). The cronyism was crystal-clear.

But my argument (then and now) is that these two branches have been so corrupted that there is only one branch left to empower the citizen against these forces of corporations, insurance companies, and lobbyists– the judiciary. Voting is really an illusory power nowadays, with super delegates, the electoral college, and rampant gerrymandering. Our elected officials bear no loyalty to us as citizens because they’ve been bought and sold ten times over by the time they are elected and re-elected. It’s depressing, I know, but it’s true.

And, as usual, the corporations, insurance companies and cronies are mounting a multi-faceted attack on that last vestige of power that we, as citizens and litigants, have. An interesting video someone sent me recently made me remember that conversation I had back in 1996 (here), and made me proud, once again, to have ended up having the honor and privilege to be a trial attorney for the people.