The Senate Judiciary Committee held an important hearing this morning looking into the disturbing trend of the Roberts Court to shut down people’s access to justice when they go to court to vindicate their rights against large corporations.
The hearing was on Barriers to Justice and Accountability: How the Supreme Court's Recent Rulings Will Affect Corporate Behavior. Chairman Leahy opened the hearing discussing how recent Supreme Court cases are making it harder for working Americans to get their day in court. He expressed particular concern about three cases:
- Wal-Mart v. Dukes, which will make it harder to hold big companies accountable when they violate civil rights laws;
- Janus Capital Group v. First Derivative Traders, which shielded from accountability those who knowingly committed securities fraud; and
- AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion, which prevents victims of consumer fraud from the protections of jury trials and class actions.
The committee invited four distinguished people to address the issue: Betty Dukes (plaintiff in the sex discrimination case against Wal-Mart) was the one panelist who was also a party to one of the cases being discussed. She spoke poignantly about her experience at Wal-Mart and the fear that so many women have of going against their employer, especially one as powerful as Wal-Mart. She promised to continue her fight, but knows that without a national class action, many women will be intimidated into not litigating.
Andrew J. Pincus (a Washington lawyer who has argued many cases before the Court) and Robert Alt (from the Heritage Foundation) denied that the Court was tilting unfairly to favor corporations, argued that the cases were decided rightly, and stated that the Court was simply upholding existing law. In contrast, Melissa Hart (law professor at the University of Colorado) and James Cox (law professor at Duke) took the position that the Court is wrongly shielding wrongdoers from accountability.
Professor Hart correctly characterized as a policy decision the Roberts Court's tendency to interpret procedural law so restrictively, despite congressional intent otherwise, so that Americans become unable to present their case to an impartial court.
Senator Whitehouse discussed the critical role juries play in American government. He noted that juries are mentioned three times in the Constitution, and that they remain a government institution that Big Business cannot corrupt. For years, the far right has been denigrating "trial lawyers" and "runaway juries" in an effort to keep Americans from being able to hold the powerful accountable. Whitehouse argued that the Roberts Court is acting consistently with that pattern.
People For the American Way Foundation submitted testimony to the committee on how the Roberts Court has removed substantive and procedural protections that are the only way that individuals can avoid becoming victimized by giant corporations that dwarf them in size, wealth, and power. These decisions often provide road maps to corporate interests in how to avoid accountability for harm that they do. The constitutional design empowering individuals to consolidate their power against corporations is slowly being eroded by a fiercely ideological Court. Today's hearing is part of an effort to expose the harm that is being done.