Wednesday, January 15, 2014

A Patriot's Call to Arms

Of late I have noticed that members of groups claiming to be great patriots--even to the extent of dressing like Paul Revere--are all about following the Constitution of the United States.  Many of them even boast of carrying a copy of the Constitution in their pocket.  This is a call to arms to those who really advocate preserving the ideals embodied in our Constitution and its amendments.

I specifically call attention to Article VII which reads as follows:

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.[1]

For the last several years Republican judges and Republican state legislators, particularly in Texas, have carried on a relentless war against this particular article of the Constitution.  While they lack the courage to admit they wish to diminish justice served up by a jury of one’s peers, they disguise their attack with "good" sounding phrases like "tort reform."  An even more subtle attack is clothed in the piously phrased goal of reducing costs and making justice more accessible to the poor. 

Jury trials, contingent fees, provisions against forced arbitration and consumer protection laws which assure attorneys’ fees and costs against wrongdoers for years in this country have been provisions which allow the weak to stand on an even par, at least for a time, with the wealthy and powerful.  If you take stock of conservative legislators and Republican justices you can easily document the on-going attack against juries.

I offer as evidence the accounting of jury trials which have withstood attacks from insurance companies and super-rich corporations.  At last count, of 23 jury trials which have been appealed to the Texas Supreme Court, approximately 19 of them were reversed, substituting the 9 justices’ opinions for the opinion of 12 citizens who actually heard the facts and saw the witnesses in the case.  A recent case in the Supreme Court of the United States has approved mandating arbitration requirements in employment contracts.  For many years these have been prohibited on public policy grounds.  An individual seeking to be employed by a multi-billion dollar corporation has little standing to object if required to surrender his access to a jury trial for wrongdoing to the prospective employers’ demand that arbitration be substituted for access to the court.  Conservative court opinions have steadily encouraged more and more arbitration in lieu of access to the courthouse.  

Actions under the heading of tort reform and alternate dispute resolution in fact have undermined Article VII of our Constitution.  It demonstrates corporate America's mistrust of American citizens who might serve on juries.  I can only hope that those who love our nation’s Constitution will raise their voices in protest at this outrageous attack on the foundation of our judicial system.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Democracy's greatest enemy...

An old friend of mine used to employ a technique which he dubbed, “ribbing on the square.”  The technique usually was ostensibly told as a joke, but it had more than a grain of truth in it.  Following that line of thought, while I was in office I once commented “If you got all of the ignorance out of the Legislature, it would no longer be representative government.”  The reason I couched it in a humorous fashion was because, like all other politicians, I didn’t want to be accused of saying that the very voters who elected me were less than brilliant.

Several historic figures such as Winston Churchill and Plato did not hold the system of democracy in high esteem.  Winston Churchill is reported to have said the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.  Plato was more direct when he advocated only allowing the "intelligencia" to be elected to public office on the grounds the average citizen who voted would only vote to further his own selfish interests and never for the good of the whole.  In spite of its foibles, I still believe, as one philosopher once said, that democracy may not be a good form of government but is better than all the rest. 

A recent article by syndicated columnist, George Will, with whom I seldom agree, was an interesting piece titled “The Price of Political Ignorance.”  His article in some respects squares with my thinking that ignorance is the greatest enemy of a free society.  Will pointed out that a government scholar from Stanford University seemed to believe smaller government would fit with political ignorance of citizens.  He argued smaller government would provide less knowledge necessary to carry the burden of government.  I disagree and believe neither more government nor less government is the answer--but better government is.

As an elected official I was constantly amazed at the lack of knowledge of many of my constituents, including many who should have been in a position to be well informed.  A glaring example is the fact that more often than not I would receive letters from upstanding, wise businessmen from my district urging me to vote one way or another on a piece of legislation pending in the Congress of the United States.

It distresses me to no end to hear too many of my fellow citizens make little of their lack of knowledge about how we are governed with the simple phrase “it’s just politics.”   Some also excuse their ignorance of government by saying, “What difference does one vote make?”  This uninformed statement strikes home with me particularly because my father once lost an election for the Port Arthur city council by 2 votes.  

Attempting to navigate our political system and help foster decent government without adequate knowledge is like participating in an athletic tournament without knowing what the rules are.  I would urge each of you who have taken the time to read this article to give yourself a test on citizenship:

1. Name the 3 branches of the federal government. 
[If you don't know, here's the answer!]
2. Name your United States Senators. 
3. Name your local State Representative and State Senator. 
[If you live in Texas, click here]
4. Is your city government a city manager form of government or strong mayor form of government? [Here's some information to help you think about that]
5. Do you know the difference between a party primary and a general election? 
[If you don't know, click here]
6. Can you name the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court? 
7. Do you know what NATO is? 
8. Name the Lt. Governor of Texas. 
9. Name the Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives. 
10. Name the county Judge of the county where you live. 

A good citizen should score at least a 90 on this self test.  If you failed, people you don’t know are controlling a big part of your life.