Jan 232013
 

I’m starting to understand why there are 311 million Americans and 310 million guns in America. It’s not just about hunting or collecting.

It’s about self-defense – not against street crime, which has dropped like a rock over the last two decades, but against a world that seems to have run amok, and against which the government frequently seems inept or powerless.

I’m not just talking about 9/11 – though I’m willing to bet that gun sales spiked after our country, with all its military might and a $300 billion defense budget, proved defenseless against nineteen extremists with box cutters. Consider how Washington and Wall Street connived to betray America under the guise of “deregulation,” leaving our homes, jobs, and life savings at the mercy of greed-driven speculation. It will take years for most Americans to recover what they lost since 2008 – many never will. The U.S. government proved quite adept at arranging the immediate rescue of the Money Industry; but huge numbers of our citizenry are stuck in the equivalent of the New Orleans Superdome after Hurricane Katrina – left to fend for themselves.

Name a major disaster and then connect the dots, as I have attempted previously: the Enron/California Energy Crisis Hoax, 9/11, Katrina, the mass shootings by deranged loners who somehow “fall through the cracks” till they slaughter our loved ones. Then add the nation’s gravely inadequate response to global warming – the most dangerous and disruptive threat to our security on the horizon. A fearful pattern of incompetence emerges.

And so, if our government cannot protect us, we will protect ourselves ­– or at least try to, as if putting weapons in cockpits or classrooms is going to work.

A dramatic decline in public confidence in the government is clearly underway. 81% of Americans disapprove of the job Congress is doing, according to the Gallup polling organization. That’s actually an improvement over its all-time worst score of 90% last August, but hardly anything the Founders would be proud of. President Obama is also doing better, but his disapproval rating has soared from 15% in January 2009 to 43% a few days ago.

These numbers change when Americans are asked to assess the presidency and Congress as institutions in the abstract. The former scored a 43% disapproval rating – nearly identical to the current occupant’s. But only 65% of Americans disapproved of the legislative branch – fifteen points lower than the disapproval rate for the current Congress.

Rating the federal government as a whole, 63% of Americans say they are dissatisfied.

That the executive and legislative branches are held in low esteem is not news, and being the so-called “political” branches, not particularly surprising.

More important is the ranking of the branch of government whose single job is to maintain the basic software of the U.S. operating system – our laws. These are the principles, originating in the Constitution, by which democracy and its citizens are supposed to abide.  They are administered by the judicial branch, the one branch of government structured to be impervious to political pressure, including the influence of money.

Trust in the legal system is higher than either the executive or legislative branches, Gallup researchers report, but a solid third of all Americans disapprove of the judicial branch. The good news is that Americans’ view of the courts hasn’t changed much since 1973.

By some objective measures, however, America’s once vaunted system of laws fares poorly with respect to other socio-economically similar nations. The World Justice Project’s annual “Rule of Law Index” places the U.S. nineteenth out of twenty-nine countries, principally because of wealth-based disparities in Americans’ access to the legal system.

The judicial branch faces four serious challenges that, unless abated, are going to further undermine public confidence – not just in the judiciary, but also in government and democracy.

First is the increasingly politicized conduct of the courts themselves.

In 2000, the Republican appointees on the Supreme Court stopped the vote count process in Florida and awarded the election to George Bush. In 2011, the Republican majority on the high court ruled that those “arbitration clauses” inserted in the fine print of virtually every contract between a giant corporation and consumers must be enforced to deny people their right to sue a company in court. And then of course there is the infamous Citizens United case, in which the Republican majority ruled that injecting money into elections to influence the outcome is a form of free speech, and that corporations exercising that right are protected by the First Amendment. In that single decision, the Court disenfranchised the vast majority of Americans who cannot hire their own lobbyist or fund the election of a friendly politician.

Finally, most Americans are aware that Chief Justice Roberts broke with his Republican colleagues to uphold federal health care reform last year. What they’re not aware of is this: buried in the legalese of that decision, Justice Roberts opened the door to a change in constitutional jurisprudence that would roll back American law to the standards in effect in 1905, when the Supreme Court struck down congressional workplace and other reforms. Consistently favoring corporations over people is not just bad law, it’s bad for the credibility of the court.

And it’s not just the Supreme Court.  The overtly political and severely partisan appointments process for federal judges leads to decisions based on ideology rather than law, as the New York Times, surveying several recent books, reports.

Second, special interests are increasingly trying to corrupt judicial elections, a phenomenon that I’ve noted grew to serious proportions last year as a result of the Citizens United decision. Business groups seeking favorable treatment are challenging the judges who have ruled against them, or might do so in the future. John Grisham’s novel “The Appeal” is thinly veiled fact; the searing documentary “Hot Coffee” exposes the true story of how several state supreme court justices were ousted by business lobbyists. Far from being embarrassed by the assault on judicial impartiality, no less an institution than the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is leading the charge along with other business funded groups. The taxpayer-subsidized organizations’ two-step system is to first target state court systems based on whether they are pro-business or pro-consumer. A Chamber collaborator is slightly less nuanced: it calls these courts “judicial hellholes,” a term it has copyrighted. Then the groups help organize the political campaigns against the judges, replacing them with candidates who will rule in favor of big-business. An estimated $30 million was spent on TV ads alone in 2012 judicial elections. Once judges get sucked into the machinery of electoral campaigns, Americans will doubt their impartiality.

Third, the courts have approved crummy settlements in numerous lawsuits – often brought by government agencies – citing banks for unlawful foreclosure practices, illegal manipulation of interests rates, and a host of other multi-billion dollar heists and scams of breathtaking audacity connected to the financial debacle. My colleague Marty Berg has documented just a few of the many examples of settlements that leave the victims with next to nothing, while the banks and their fat cat execs get off with a slap on the wrist… or even a kiss on the lips. It’s not the courts’ fault that federal prosecutors can’t seem to throw a net around the high-level white-collar crooks that ran our economy into a ditch and destroyed so many people’s lives. But the courts do have the responsibility to reject the vacuous deals that benefit only the perps and their political friends. With the few notable exceptions of federal judges insisting on tougher terms, the vast majority of these sweetheart settlements are rubber-stamped.

Fourth, the court systems in many states have sustained heavy collateral damage from the Wall Street Financial Debacle of 2008. In California, budget deficits have led to massive cuts in funding for the courts; some courtrooms have closed; judges have retired; and parties now have to pay for their own court reporters to record the proceedings.  It is not mere inconvenience that concerns lawyers here. “Justice is now being rationed in our state,” Patrick Kelly, the President of the California State Bar said. He told the Los Angeles Daily Journal: “The public….[is] used to a court system that handles all these issues, child support obligations, contract disputes. What is going to happen when the court system can no longer take care of that? … There is a potential [for] serious degeneration of civil responsibility in California.”

By applying the rule of law, courts play a critical role in preserving American ideals of fairness, competition and impartial justice. John Adams, who helped Jefferson draft the Declaration of Independence and later became the second president of the United States, said this of the Seventh Amendment: “without the right to trial by jury we have no way to keep us from being ridden like horses, fleeced like sheep, fed like swine and clothed like hounds.”

The presence of a million more guns than people in this country is an alarming plebiscite on the nation’s confidence in the rule of law. If Americans lose faith in the courts as they have with other democratic institutions, disputes that would otherwise be settled by law will be settled by force. Take a look at the chaos and devastation now underway in countries where the only law that governs is the law of the jungle.

About Harvey Rosenfield

Harvey Rosenfield has been fighting to protect consumers and taxpayers against rip-offs and abuse for thirty years. He’s the author of Proposition 103, the landmark insurance reform initiative, which has saved Californians more than $63 billion in insurance premiums.

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