It wasn’t difficult to see liberals standing on the Mall in Washington, bundled in warm clothing and loudly cheering President Obama’s Inaugural Address, with the promise of larger and more activist central government deployed to implement a “progressive” agenda. But I saw another group smiling softly deep in the background. It was the Crony Capitalists, watching from warm, comfortable Fortune 100 boardrooms across America and on Wall Street, and their K Street lobbyists in DC, all nodding their heads at the opportunity to transform that vision into new laws and regulations that would benefit their own interests. That’s the way it works in Washington, and the rest of us are the cream in the Oreo cookie, stuck in the middle and crushed by both sides.
Liberals, especially those dedicated to the cause of civil justice, should be careful what they wish for in the next four years. An Uncle Sam unleashed from the limits on centralized power designed into the Constitution and Bill of Rights could hinder or even crush the individual right to have civil suits heard before a local jury and the right of state governments to enforce local laws benefitting the consumer. In the hands of Big Government Liberals and Crony Capitalists working behind closed doors in smoke-filled rooms, phrases of Obama’s speech such as “collective action” and “common effort” could result in budget “compromises” and “Grand Bargains” that leave us with ugly surprises, such as federal caps on damages in medical malpractice lawsuits filed in state and county courts; preemption of state consumer protection laws; and limits on the authority of state Attorneys General. Is that what liberals signed up for when they cheered President Obama?
Civil justice activists of all stripes should heed and cite the majority decision by the Supreme Court in the Obamacare ruling. Thankfully, the Court expressed the need for the Executive Branch and Congress to recognize and follow constitutional limits on their authority under the Commerce Clause and the Necessary and Proper Clause. Constitutional experts whose theories were adopted by the majority, such as Randy Barnett and Rob Natelson, have already made it clear that the Roberts decision imposed new limits on the unbridled ambition to override state governments and individual rights. Randy Barnett promises to lead any legal challenge to an enacted federal cap on medmal damages, and both experts predict such a law would be struck down by the current Court. As long as that opinion isn’t overruled through the appointment of justices who believe in an unlimited Commerce Clause, as promoted in Justice Ginsberg’s minority opinion, the Founding Fathers’ vision of a civil justice system dominated by local juries, and not bureaucrats in Washington, will remain alive.
Ironic, isn’t it? Civil justice advocates on the left need libertarians and constitutional conservative thinkers such as Randy Barnett and Rob Natelson; conservative Republicans such as Ted Poe, Louis Gohmert, Tom Coburn, Mike Lee and Ken Cuccinelli; and wise Tea Party activists such as Judson Phillips, to keep the promise of equality under law. Let’s hope civil justice liberals realize it.