BY ESTON BOND
Published February 18, 2005
Though President Bush's second term is only a few weeks old, he is just his own signature away from scoring his first legislative victory of the term. The Class Action Fairness Act, a bill designed to limit the accessibility of class-action legal suits, passed the Senate in a 72-26 vote last week. While America's tort system has undoubtedly produced its share of court-clogging and frivolous class-action suits, the proposed legislation will virtually eliminate class action as a viable legal strategy -- cutting off one of the legal system's most critical pathways to social justice.
Currently, class-action law has few jurisdictional boundaries, and plaintiffs have the option of shopping around in county courts for favorable judges and juries. The new law would eliminate this practice, pushing any case filed on behalf of individuals from multiple states into the federal court system. But for all of the law's organizational merits, it risks uprooting the groundwork of countless legitimate legal claims now pending across the nation.
Individuals join class-action cases because certain state laws preclude the grounds for filing suit. If the law passes, individuals in this situation will no longer have the ability to take their cases to receptive state courts. Their problems, as well as those of many others, will be compounded under the new system as class-action suits will now need to have relevant grounds at the federal level. This change will prevent many individuals from having their cases heard at all.
Even if cases are "frivolous," individuals, under all circumstances, deserve the right to have their cases heard. Provisions, at both the state and federal level, are already in place to restrict cases with no statutory backing from being heard. These laws have effectively thrown out thousands of cases -- forcing them to be settled out of court or often, not at all. These cases, however, usually discarded as "frivolous," time and again have proved redeeming.
Class-action cases once labeled "frivolous" have brought vast societal gains -- from ostensibly minute public safety victories, such as fire-resistant mattresses or reverse beepers on big trucks, to much more serious triumphs like the elimination of tobacco ads on television. Class-action lawsuits are the lynchpin of the current legal battles against industrial polluters and discriminatory corporations. Absent the leverage of broad-scale class-action suits, big business could operate with relative impunity.
No measure of efficiency in the legal system can ever prevail over the pursuit of social justice. While efforts to craft a more orderly tort system have value, they simply cannot be allowed to sacrifice the integrity and impartiality of the justice system.