Until recently, you may have been hard pressed to find any positive news coverage of civil lawsuits. You were more likely to see a story about some supposed “jackpot” jury award than coverage of anything positive to come from a court case, such as how a lawsuit helped a family with a severely injured child or stopped illegal corporate behavior.
This was no accident, of course. For many years, large industries (like tobacco and insurance), often through Washington DC lobby groups, funded expensive public relations campaigns to deliver carefully packaged messages about the American public’s presumed obsession with suing - even though it was all factually untrue. Their goal was to turn the American public’s mind against the civil justice system and to breed fear, anger and contempt for people who use the courts. They also sought to garner sympathy for corporations, professions and institutions that harm people and communities, and which are subsequently sued in court.
Today, however, public perception of the civil justice system has taken a decided U-turn! In fact, many people now see civil court decisions as having momentous implications, acting as the last line of defense against a possibly law-breaking President and a Congress that refuses to perform its “checks and balances” function. When Trump attacks judges and judicial independence, there is bi-partisan criticism. Those who use the courts get at least respectful coverage like this New York Times story, “In Lawsuit After Lawsuit, It’s Everyday People v. Trump.” The American Civil Liberties Union not only is awash is donations but had its own Oscar ribbon this year.
This new pro-civil justice sentiment is a dilemma for House Republicans. They know full-well that voters did not send them to Washington DC to pass laws blocking constituents’ access to the courts or undermining the independence of judges. Yet many are also beholden to major industry groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which wants them to do just that. So this year, they tried a new tactic. After slapping together a bunch of major bills that wipe out people’s legal rights, the House Judiciary Committee voted them out of committee without holding a single hearing (although some degree of arm-twisting was likely involved, as this hearing shows), passed most of these bills at breakneck speed, and hoped no one would notice.