As a (relatively) young lawyer, I once attended a party with my husband, an architect, at which I was accosted by another architect who very clearly was not fond of lawyers. He demanded to know what we were going to do about "all these d — d frivolous lawsuits!" When I asked him how he defined "frivolous" he looked at me…
As a (relatively) young lawyer, I once attended a party with my husband, an architect, at which I was accosted by another architect who very clearly was not fond of lawyers. He demanded to know what we were going to do about "all these d — d frivolous lawsuits!" When I asked him how he defined "frivolous" he looked at me as if I had just asked the world’s dumbest question. "Why, one that LOSES, of course.!"
While I tend to agree with those who feel that American society has become too litigious, I look with some alarm at those who believe, like my challenger, that there are simple solutions. (His was to fine all the losers.)
I remembered this encounter when I read about the proposed "Prison Litigation Reform Act."
There are lots of ways to reduce litigation. We could require such high filing fees that only rich people would have access to the courts. We could refuse to hear certain kinds of cases (I wonder which kinds Congress would choose?) We could, as the gentleman at the party suggested, fine losers substantially for having the gall to bring an action in the first place. Or we could say, once you are in prison, no matter how minor the crime, you lose the rights to complain about anything — trivial or major.
Now, I know absolutely no one who believes that there is merit to a prisoner complaint about chocolate versus vanilla ice cream, or some of the other patently ridiculous suits cited in support of the federal proposal. The problem is, there is no way to block the truly frivolous complaints, unless we are prepared to preclude the filing of meritorious ones as well.
At the ICLU, we receive literally mountains of prisoner complaints, and the overwhelming majority are without merit. These are, admittedly, folks with lots of time on their hands. But there are also complaints that literally shock the conscience–and there is no way to determine which is which without reading them all.
I recently came across a list of lawsuits that could not have been filed if the so-called "reform bill" had been law. In one, prison guards routinely sexually assaulted female prisoners. (The specifics are not printable in a family newspaper.) In another, prisoners were restrained in handcuffs and shackles, while their heads were bashed into walls and floors by prison guards, they were repeatedly hit with wooden batons, their teeth were knocked out, limbs broken, and their bodies burned with scalding water. In yet another, a 17-year-old boy, jailed for nonpayment of a $73 traffic fine, was tortured for fourteen hours and finally murdered in his cell by other prisoners; another teenager had been beaten unconscious by those same prisoners just a few days earlier. There are many more, including instances where female prisoners have been impregnated by guards and then forced to abort.
Is it burdensome for our state attorneys general to sift through hundreds of silly complaints? Yes, it is. But do we cut off access to the courts for everyone in order to alleviate that burden? What about the next seventeen year old who is beaten to death? Is his life the price we pay for easing the workload of a government lawyer or two?