With the Georgia legislature back in session in Atlanta, I am reminded of how some lobbyists and a few politicians distrust their fellow citizens so much that they keep trying to erode the right to trial by jury in civil cases.
Never mind that the Seventh Amendment to the United States Constitution — part of the Bill of Rights — guarantees that right:
In Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.
Now, adjustment of the $20 threshold to allow for 220 years of inflation is necessary, but the principle is the same. Rights of citizens to life, liberty and property are just too important to entrust them solely to politicians and bureaucrats.
We are getting a stark reminder of the value of the right to jury trial in the news from Russia. There, the government is eliminating the right to jury trial for "crimes against the state" while expanding the definition of "treason" to include just about anything the government bosses don’t like.
Juries stand as the best bulwark against tyranny and the abuse of other citizens. Jurors with intelligence and common sense who serve on one case and go back to their everyday lives cannot be bullied or bought. The same cannot always be said of all judges, bureaucrats and politicians. As the former KGB guys in the Kremlin seek to establish a repackaged 21st century version of the tyranny of the Czars and the Commissars, they recognize that they cannot do it if free citizen jurors and independent lawyers are allowed to function.
Our politicians and the lobbyists who manipulate them tend to be more subtle. Rather than flatly denying the right to jury trial, they create devious procedural and evidentiary hurdles that are practically or economically almost impossible for ordinary citizens to clear.
So, when our legislators consider proposals to preempt claims against drug companies when the drug or device was approved in a politically manipulated regulatory process, or throw out cases as "frivolous" prior to conducting essential discovery to bring to light evidence that is hidden in the defendant’s records, I hope they will see the similarities of these subtle efforts to the more flagrant abuses in Russia today.
As a conservative who believes in the sanctity of the United States Constitution, I hope they understand that denial of access to justice through the procedural "death of a thousand cuts" is no less fatal to the rights of citizens than what Putin and Medvedev are doing in Moscow.
NOTE: This post was listed first among the top blog posts of the week of 1/19/09 in Lexblogosphere.
Ken Shigley is a trial attorney in Atlanta, Georgia who has been listed as a "Super Lawyer" (Atlanta Magazine), among the "Legal Elite" (Georgia Trend Magazine), and in the Bar Register of Preeminent Lawyers (Martindale), and is a Certified Civil Trial Advocate of the National Board of Trial Advocacy,. Mr. Shigley has extensive experience representing parties in trucking and bus accidents, products liability, catastrophic personal injury, wrongful death, brain injury, spinal cord injury and burn injury cases. Currently he is Secretary of the 40,000 member State Bar of Georgia.