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Showing posts with label Sheldon Whitehouse. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Sheldon Whitehouse. Show all posts

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Whitehouse laments mandatory arbitration, civil jury woes; SCOTUS-nominated Jackson does not engage

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I., one of my state senators) just questioned U.S. Supreme Court nominee Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson on the importance of the civil jury.

(I wrote recently about Judge Jackson's trial court record, here and here.)

Tort law does not usually figure much into U.S. Supreme Court confirmation hearings, so when it does, it's worth paying attention. While tort law can be implicated directly in the work of the U.S. Supreme Court, for example, in the application of federal common law in admiralty, tort law is more likely to make an appearance ancillarily to constitutional law, the area of senators' greatest interest in the confirmation process.  

Those appearances of tort law usually are indicative of the interests of the day.  When gun control and the Second Amendment were hot topics in the 20-aughts, tort law made cameos in questioning about the defenses of self and property.  Senators have been interested periodically in the scope of civil rights law to combat gender discrimination.  Dialog on that point has imported principles of causation, because civil rights law, especially in private remedies, borrows both procedural and substantive machinery, including limiting principles, from common law tort.

At about quarter to one in the extended morning of today's confirmation hearings, Senator Whitehouse sought Judge Jackson's endorsement, which she gave, of statements on the importance of the civil jury.  The Seventh Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees a right, if qualifiedly, to a civil jury, and the mechanism was famously admired by Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America (1835).  Yet the institution has been a waning feature of American civil justice, largely as an incidental function of the dramatic decline in civil trials during the 20th century, but also as a deliberate effect of corporate America's embrace of mandatory arbitration.

Mandatory arbitration, removing cases from the courts upon the purported consent of consumers and victims of tortious wrongdoing and breach of contract, has been a preoccupation of consumer protection advocates and anti-tort reformers (or plaintiff-side "tort reformers"), such as Ralph Nader.  (The issue was among those addressed by the documentary Hot Coffee in 2011, particularly in the painful context of purported consent to dispute resolution in event of criminal sexual assault.  Unfortunately, because the point hardly diminishes the problem on the merits, the story highlighted in the film was later challenged as a possible fabrication.)  Among the many shortcomings of arbitration as a mechanism in the service of justice that rub me the wrong way, besides its overwhelming favoritism for corporate respondents, is the lack of transparency, which allows wrongdoers to persist in misconduct in defiance of public accountability.

Senator Whitehouse has been focused lately on what he perceives to be politicization of the judiciary through the use of "dark money," that is, money of unknown or vague origin, to influence the appointment (and in some states, election) of judges, typically to further the interests of big business.  Whitehouse wrote about the problem in the Yale Law Forum in 2021, and I recently wrote about Whitehouse writing about the problem.  He talked about that issue both in his opening remarks on the Judiciary Committee yesterday and at the start of his questioning today.  This focus is a natural extension, and broadening, of his concern over civil juries, about which he wrote also, in a law review article for William & Mary in 2014.

I created a C-SPAN clip from today's hearing.  C-SPAN has a transcript below it, but be warned, the automated system made some egregious errors, e.g., reading "civil juries" as "simple majorities."


Frankly, I didn't care for Judge Jackson's response.  Her initial reflection about citizens sitting in judgment over one another seemed to speak to the criminal trial.  She failed to acknowledge the separate, separately important and separately threatened, civil dimension on which Whitehouse was focused.  When he pressed her again on the question, in relation to the risk of jury tampering, her response, again, was painfully generic and indicated no recognition of the particular problem of the vitality of the civil jury.  On a third go, Whitehouse explicitly cited mandatory arbitration, the Seventh Amendment, the employment context, and corporate power.  Judge Jackson had no opportunity to respond.

I simply can't tell whether Judge Jackson was unclear on what it is Whitehouse is worried about, or she was simply trying, presumably upon handlers' instructions, to remain utterly bland and uncontroversial in any declaration.  Whitehouse thanked Jackson for answering his questions with clarity and expressly recognizing the importance of the civil jury.  But she had not. 

After the exchange, Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) noted pending legislation that would override purported consent to mandatory arbitration in sexual assault matters.  The Ending Forced Arbitration of Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment Act of 2021 was signed by the President on March 3: a welcome change, a long time coming (since Hot Coffee; #MeToo revived the appetite), though redressing only a sliver of the mandatory arbitration problem.  Durbin was talking about, I assume, the Forced Arbitration Injustice Repeal (FAIR) Act, which, as H.R. 963, narrowly passed in the House, 222-209, just last week.  Its companion S.505 has been long pending in the Judiciary Committee.  The FAIR Act would apply to employment and consumer disputes.

Incidentally, just before the jury discussion, Senator Whitehouse asked Judge Jackson whether it is ever appropriate for an appellate court to do fact-finding outside the record.  She said that she knew of no such occasion.  Neither of them referred to, nor, doubtless, even thought about, the latitude afforded appellate courts to research the law of foreign jurisdictions, which is treated for most purposes as a question of fact.  I note the issue only because American appellate courts' unwillingness to investigate foreign law in cases in which it is implicated often impedes the attainment of justice in the jurisdictionally transnational cases increasingly generated by globalization, not only in corporate matters such as business contract disputes, but in family law and civil rights.

The Sullivan question has come up today, too, this afternoon by Senator Klobuchar (D-Minn.).  She seemed to suggest that journalists' lives will be put at risk without the "actual malice" standard.  Never mind the reputations and careers that have been ruined in the name of protecting press negligence and blissful ignorance.  I don't have the stomach today to tackle such uninformed melodrama.  As one might expect, Judge Jackson stuck close to tried-and-true principles of stare decisis.