Monday, February 11, 2008

Grisham's "The Appeal"

Anyone who is even mildly interested in the issue of tort reform should pick up a copy of John Grisham's new novel "The Appeal." Though a work of fiction, "The Appeal" relates a story that occurs every year in states across the land.

Basically, the plot concerns a large (fictional) chemical company that has been dumping toxins on their property. The toxins contaminate the water supply of a small town and people start dying of cancer. A law firm takes on some of the cases and bankrupts themselves in obtaining a judgment against the company.

That's where it gets interesting. It turns out that the state supreme court is divided 5 - 4 against tort reform and in favor of letting large judgments stand. And it also turns out that one of the majority is up for election and the election will be held before the appeal is perfected.

So, the big chemical company sponsors their own, tort reform friendly, candidate, spending millions in a bid to unseat the incumbent and change the court's makeup to one that is friendly to their point of view. That's as far as I will go, since I don't want to spoil it for anyone who wants to read it, but the point I am making is that this is happening all over the country. Judges who are friendly to the consumer are being replaced by judges who are friendly to big business and it's happening not because the electorate is in favor of big business but because the money that the companies pump into the race can basically buy an election.

This is a cautionary tale about how the courthouse doors are being closed to the common man who has a grievance against a business for an injury. It's about how slick marketing schemes to blame "trial lawyers" for every ill from inflation to higher insurance premiums can sway voters to elect candidates whose opinions might ultimately harm them.

Perhaps this novel will cause people to start to take a very close look at what is happening in this country, while we still have a country that people can recognize.


Saturday, February 2, 2008

Drivers License Suspension

I was reading in the Tennessean (Nashville paper, for those out of the area) that the legislature here is debating a bill that would permit police officers to immediately suspend and confiscate drivers licenses from people arrested for drunk driving. This is something that has been in effect in Ohio for some time. I am not in favor of it.

We used to pride ourselves on the fact that, in this country, we are innocent until proven guilty. How does that square up with permitting suspensions of licenses upon arrest. If a person is innocent, why should the license be suspended?

Think of the problems that this would cause an innocent person. How would they get to work? To court? To the grocery store? Why should we impose that kind of sanction upon a person who is, at this point, merely accused of a crime?

In Ohio, the law was challenged and the Ohio Supreme Court upheld it. Driving, they said, is a privilege not a right. This, of course, is the same court that a couple weeks ago held that the right to a trial by jury is not a fundamental right.

My opinion is that we are on a dangerous course in this country. More and more we are giving up rights. In this case, the right to a determination of whether you are guilty of a crime before losing your right to drive. What will it be next?

The problem is that it's hard to lobby the legislature on these issues. People who want to stand up and yell about losing their rights are shouted down by people who argue that they are in favor of drunk driving. It's not that at all. We're just in favor of keeping our rights. After all, we have these rights no matter what crime we are accused of. Due process is due process - for murderers, theives and drunk drivers.

People should be outraged. They aren't. That is both sad and scary.