Gerry Spence, the trial lawyer who dresses out of court like a cowboy in case people miss the idea that court cases are showdowns, was speaking about litigation at a luncheon I attended years ago. He began by acknowledging that, for example, parents suing for the wrongful death of a child understand that no amount of money can bring back the life of that child. But, Spence pointed out, money is how we hurt people. Money is how we communicate about a wrong.
Singer Cyndi Lauper sings, “Money changes everything.” Well, maybe. But revenge is also sweet, and sometimes the money isn’t really everything. Two lawsuits in the news last week sought settlements for money, but money didn’t seem to be at the heart of the suits.
A former business partner of Michael Jackson won $900,000 and then was also ordered to pay Jacko $200,000. We have no idea what that former partner paid out in legal costs to get the settlement.
When the actual money involved seems less than life changing, you have to wonder if the process of suing was really about something else. Which I can understand, except, with all we know or think we know, can anybody really hope to prove a point of any kind to Michael Jackson? What point? That he’s a cash-poor 21st century Caligula deserving less attention than a TV cooking show? I’m saying, congratulations former business partner. You’ve struggled mightily and spent thousands to get some spare change out of Bozo the Pedophile Clown.
Still, the jury here in Santa Monica found the man entitled to some satisfaction and I hope he found some. My hopes are much higher for Valerie Plame and her husband Joseph C. Wilson IV (Can we get this guy a shorter nickname? How about “Biff”?). They are suing Vice President Dick Cheney, Scooter Libby and Karl Rove for violating their constitutional rights by conspiring to leak information about her employment; information that led to Plame having to resign from her job in a CIA department. Information that oddly began circulating eight days after husband “Biff” wrote a New York Times op-ed piece accusing the Bush Administration of using – excuse me – lies to build consensus for invading Iraq. Lies that have since become historic lies.
Plame has already stated that any monetary gain from the suit will be passed on to charity. This one is clearly about the cool, crisp and refreshing taste of justice. And a key ingredient in that sparkling summer beverage will be the way that filing the suit puts the actions of Cheney/Libby/Rove back in the news. Where that story belongs.
The popular notion is that Americans are fatigued by litigation. Supposedly we got sick and tired of people suing all the time when a woman went after McDonald’s for serving burning hot coffee. Late night comics added to that drumbeat with jokes about hot coffee and fingers-in-chili scams. Then no less an advocate of “freedom” than George Bush jumped on that train by preaching that Americans were so sick of lawsuits that they’d be willing to let giant pharmaceutical companies and doctors off the hook when their goods and services caused people to die. Specifically, Bush wants to cap the amount that patients could recover for damages such as physical and emotional pain and suffering.
Oh, if only Bush truly wanted to cap suffering.
We are a litigious society, and there’s no question more attempts will be made to bring down the fever to sue. But while there are pragmatic concerns behind those efforts, we need to recognize that our courts, like voting and public education, are a primary manifestation of what America is about. When people talk about “freedom” they should know it includes the right to seek justice through legal means. Especially when the defendant line on the paperwork reads “Richard Bruce Cheney.”