The fact that politicians seem to get away with incredibly slanderous and libelous comments has been a particular annoyance during this election campaign. Granted, it’s hard to match the invective of Donald Trump, but if we’re honest, we have to admit that he has simply normalized and amplified the growing nastiness of too much of American politics and culture.
Seen any Senate ads lately?
Of course, candidates know what they are getting into, and I suppose they can slug it out (although it does make you wonder how many nice, qualified people who would do a good job simply decline to get down and dirty), but other objects of vitriol and unsubstantiated accusations are rarely in a position to fight back.
Think about the women (I believe the number is currently 12) who summoned their courage and shared their “Trump experiences” following disclosure of the appalling “pussy tape.” They probably anticipated his rage and bluster and denial, but those reactions have been accompanied by threats of lawsuits. Trump is clearly someone who issues empty and even ludicrous threats (see: letter to the New York Times), but he has also been involved in literally thousands of actual lawsuits, and not always as a defendant. In fact, as Ed Brayton reports,
The New York Times reports that the American Bar Association prepared a report calling Donald Trump a libel bully for his decades-long use of defamation suits to stifle criticism of him, but they chickened out on releasing it because — drumroll, please — he might sue them.
The New York Times can take care of itself, but if the threat of litigation can chill and intimidate the ABA, think of the effect on even the most blameless and resolute accuser. If you lack the financial wherewithal to mount an adequate defense to a lawsuit, no matter how unfounded, the person pursuing that lawsuit starts out with a grossly unfair advantage. Even a loss is a win, when the real goal is to inflict damage.
This problem goes well beyond the antics of the spoiled brat running for President, and it isn’t simply relevant to libel cases. Ask any lawyer who has defended or sued on behalf of a “little guy” against a large corporation represented by a major law firm. For that matter, ask the twenty-year-old stuck in the Marion County Jail awaiting trial on a relatively minor charge, who doesn’t have money to post bail and is represented by an overworked public defender because he can’t afford private counsel.
In far too many situations–not all, but too many–justice is something only the affluent can hope for.
Americans talk a lot about the obvious problems with our justice system: (1) inexcusable delays in the federal courts because there aren’t enough judges (thanks to Mitch McConnell and the GOP lawmakers who simply refuse to fill judicial vacancies so long as Obama is nominating the candidates for those positions), (2) unarmed people getting killed because police departments’ training programs–especially in smaller communities– are spotty at best and nonexistent at worst, (3) hundreds of thousands of people–mostly black– suffering mass incarceration and lifelong stigma thanks to a Drug War that we now know had little to do with controlling drugs and lots to do with continuing Jim Crow practices (I urge everyone reading this to watch Netflix’ documentary, “13th.” It gives chapter and verse.)
There’s much more.
The good news is that there finally seems to be a bipartisan recognition of at least some of these problems and even some evidence of a willingness to address them.
Bottom line: your chances of achieving justice–whether that’s redress of a wrong done to you, or the fair and timely resolution of a charge against you–shouldn’t depend upon who is in office or what’s in your wallet.
The American justice system needs to be fixed, sooner rather than later.