News Section: Opinion
Justice System Continues to Move Further from the People
At every level, civil and criminal courts have continued to function in such a manner that the average citizen is at a severe disadvantage when they either choose to seek redress through them, or are forced to participate in their proceedings. Nowhere is the disparity in economic resources, which has grown more and more severe during the recent unprecedented expansion of the wealth gap, such a glaring factor as in the courts. As a variety of issues conspire to further politicize Florida courtrooms, this hindrance to a just and equitable society will only deepen.
A couple of weeks back, I reported about issues in the state attorney race which highlight the inherently political nature of the office and blur the lines in relationships between officers of the court. Judges openly campaigning and soliciting financial contributions for attorneys who argue before them, court officers influencing investigations that relate to political opponents, and misuse of legal databases are all frightening reminders that the third branch of government in our state is run by politicians, just like the other two.
The involvement of a state political party in a campaign to remove state supreme court justices, in what appears to be a clear case of exercising a political grudge, sets a disturbing precedent that is all too easy to imagine becoming a mainstay of the election cycle. Rooted in good intentions, our judicial retention system is the latest electoral process to have been corrupted by the deep pockets of special interest money in today's super PAC era.
Let's start with the Flordia GOP's campaign to remove three justices. Voters have almost no way to assess sitting judges. In the past, the selection of quality judges defined the process and retention was pretty much assured unless someone demonstrated the sort of incompetence or corruption that the policy was designed to police, which made it a somewhat effective, if inherently flawed tool. But today, each decision from the bench is made within the reality that if the losing side has greater resources, they can rain down money in the form of misleading attack ads that will likely be a voter's only source of information from which to draw on at the polls. In a process where no news is good news, all the well-resourced interests have to do is facilitate bad news reaching the voters.
A judge intent on keeping their position is then faced with the option of avoiding making rulings likely to incite the ire of such interests, or raising enough money to counter the information being disseminated by the enemies they've made. I would argue that the justice system is the place where having to raise obscene amounts of money from individuals and businesses is most likely to set the stage for epic conflicts of interest. That's at least partly because judges are less likely than any politician to find average individuals interested in offering financial support.
Whereas a politically-involved citizen of typical means might find their way to give a few $25 donations to various legislative candidates who profess to share their ideologies, can you imagine them being equally excited about helping a judge, justice or even an elected prosecutor? Indeed, we have seen that they are more likely to receive support from either people within their profession or the business sector, scenarios that are fraught with the potential for ethical problems. We already have two branches of the government enslaved to the interests who have bid up their costs of winning and maintaining offices in exchange for setting the legislative agenda. We need not surrender the final branch to the same dynamic.
Amendment 5 seeks to further politicize the bench by subjecting Florida Supreme Court Justices to a confirmation process by the state Senate, while granting broad review powers to the House and reducing the threshold for repealing judicial decisions from 2/3 to a simple majority. Combined with increased financial influence in the unlimited spending era, this one-two punch would all but totally politicize the branch of government meant to be a counterbalance to its hyper-political counterparts.
Officers of the court wax verbosely on the sacredness of their institution's integrity, while demanding that those subjected to it adhere religiously to its quaint and extensive rituals. From the judge's dress code to the condescending manner in which courtroom participants are often reprimanded for being unaware of its endless string of procedural no no's – bound to be foreign to anyone who hasn't managed to pick up a six-figure law degree along the way – the court's high-mindedness is only further undercut by the revelations that the opposing sides, as well as the people in the robes officiating, are often cutting each other campaign checks or acting as surrogates to ensure that the deep pockets are directing the resources in their favored directions.
Access to and the successful navigation of our justice system provide the final measure of disconnect from the common man. Through an admittedly informal poll of local law offices, I found that most charge somewhere between $275 and $300 an hour for their services. According to census data on local earnings, this would equate to more than half of a week's take home pay for the typical Manatee County resident – for just one hour billed mind you. Clearly, the average person is at a tremendous disadvantage in such a system that warns on almost every document it publishes that participants should have an attorney.
Anything from fighting a traffic citation, to divorce, to filing a lawsuit in order to seek civil redress must be considered within the reality that in all but the most sensational circumstances, a proper defense or plaintiff representation will almost certainly cost more than throwing up one's hands and submitting to whatever injustice one has endured. Unless of course you've been in an auto accident which was deemed the fault of someone else, in which case you'll suddenly be introduced to a litany of empathetic attorneys bent on getting you the justice you deserve and on a purely speculative cost basis to boot – attorneys who are conspicuously absent when that justice is not related to a personal injury claim.
The remaining option for those without the means to tap into all of the connections and expertise that an attorney will sell themselves on when pitching their hourly rate, is to enter the legal labyrinth on their own. As I said, this is already a dauntingly, uphill quest. But if one must enter those chambers knowing that they have no more standing than when they show up as a constituent at their legislator's office to argue the merits of something that runs counter to the corporate benefactors of that lawmaker, then the idea of a just society is lost. And if a matter of the most profound importance makes it to the state's highest court, represented by counsel or not, it does so with all parties aware of the political sensitivities involved. We are no longer a land governed by laws, but rather by resources and the influence they buy those who've accumulated the most of them.
Dennis Maley's column appears every Thursday and Sunday in The Bradenton Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Click here to visit his column archive. You can also follow Dennis on Facebook. Sign up for a free email subscription and get The Bradenton Times' Thursday Weekly Recap and Sunday Edition delivered to your email box each week at no cost.
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