In 1958 President Dwight D. Eisenhower declared that May 1st would be Law Day in the United States. It is a day to reflect on the role of law in our country and the important role it plays in protecting the safety and rights of every American citizen.
This year is a very special year. It marks the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, the “Great Charter” that protects the civil liberties of English subjects and guarantees the two great pillars of democratic society—representative government and trial by jury. Chapter 39 of the document reads, “No man shall be taken, outlawed, banished, or in any way destroyed, nor will we proceed against or prosecute him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers and by the law of the land.” As the American Bar Association noted, “Perhaps more than any other document in human history, Magna Carta has come to embody a simple, but enduring truth: No one, no matter how powerful, is above the law.”
The principles outlined in the Magna Carta, as well those in the 1689 British Bill of Rights, are the foundation of American democracy. There are two places where each one of us is supposed to be equal—at the ballot box and in the courtroom. That equality is a powerful right that should be championed by each of us regardless of political affiliation because it is the very definition of a free people. Indeed, John Adams wrote, “Representative government and trial by jury are the heart and lungs of liberty. Without them we have no other fortification against being ridden like horses, fleeced like sheep, worked like cattle, and fed and clothed like swine and hounds.”
Sadly, in 2015, it is clear that equality at the ballot box is gone. While we still adhere to “one person, one vote,” our political process is a billion-dollar quagmire. It is now cost prohibitive for many people to run for office, and candidates receive big money contributions. In the wake of the Citizens United decision, corporate special interests are spending millions in independent ad campaigns to influence voters. The money is hidden behind front groups with misleading names, so we don’t know who is behind them. In West Virginia’s 2014 elections, these independent expenditures reached record levels. Even after the election, the money doesn’t go away because lawmakers come under the influence of special interest lobbyists.
“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 reexamined in any court of the United States, that according to the rule of law.”
Often overlooked, the 7th Amendment ensures that we can challenge the government when our other rights are threatened. If the government oversteps its boundaries and imposes unconstitutional laws, any citizen can challenge the government in the courtroom.
It also ensures that we can hold wrongdoers accountable when they harm us physically or financially. Civil laws protect us from cheating and financial fraud, physical injury, dangerous products and toxins, violations of our civil rights and more. They also protect local businesses when other businesses fail to meet contractual obligations, steal trade secrets, compete unfairly or otherwise harm them. Our courts hold them accountable and compensate us for our losses. More importantly, court decisions have resulted in changes that make us all safer including safer cars, a ban on lead products, safer toys, health care industry practices that protect patients, emergency exits, safe workplaces and more.
Not content with eliminating our equality at the ballot box, corporate special interests want to eliminate our access to the civil courts and right to trial by jury. Why? Because our courtrooms are the one place where every individual, worker or small business is equal to the world’s most wealthy and powerful corporations. It is because of this that corporate special interests want to change state and federal laws through what they call “tort reform.” These changes give corporations immunity and allow them to increase their profits at the expense of consumers, workers, policy holders, small businesses, the government and ultimately tax payers. Our courtrooms are the one place corporations can be held accountable. If there is no accountability, there is no safety. This is why we must block corporate efforts to deny us our constitutional right to trial by jury.
On Law Day 2015, we need to commit ourselves to protecting our 7th Amendment rights with the same focus and determination used when we protect our 1st, 2nd or 4th amendment rights. As former U. S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist (a justice appointed by President Nixon and made chief justice by President Reagan) noted, “The right to trial by jury in civil cases at common law is fundamental to our history and jurisprudence. A right so fundamental and sacred to the citizens should be jealously guarded.”