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A Radical Fix for the Justice System: Socialism

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Posted on Feb 4, 2014

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Americans are already provided legal assistance, but Noam Scheiber at New Republic says it’s not enough, and, he argues, there should also be a cap on the amount rich people and corporations can spend on lawyers.

It’s called socialized justice and the idea is to level the playing field.

Scheiber points to two very similar cases in Fort Worth, Texas. Two 16-year-old boys drove drunk and killed people. The cases were tried years apart by the same judge. One boy, with the aid of a public defender, was sentenced to 20 years in prison. The other, with the help of a private legal team, was let off with probation. You probably heard of the famous “affluenza” case—it was argued that the young man was not responsible for his actions because he had been so coddled by his wealthy parents.

So, would socializing law constrict the liberty of wealthy people to defend themselves? Scheiber says the system as it operates now already works against everyone but the wealthy:

Critics will surely dismiss this approach as illiberal. But, in fact, we already limit spending in parts of the legal system in order to put adversaries on equal footing. Small-claims courts prohibit defendants from hiring lawyers so that plaintiffs get a fair shot at representing themselves.

More to the point, ensuring that no citizen can significantly outspend her adversary is actually the highest realization of liberalism. The average liberal, myself included, believes government should provide everyone with a minimum level of essential services like health care or education. We liberals would prefer that this minimum bar be quite high, but we have no problem with the wealthy buying more health care or fancier schooling. If Bill Gates spends millions of dollars on medical treatment or private schools for his kids, it probably makes him a bit healthier than I am and his kids a bit better educated than mine. Still, the act of spending this money doesn’t make me less healthy or my kids less educated. It has no bearing either way.

But when Bill Gates spends hundreds or thousands of times more than I could to defend himself against a criminal indictment, the very act of doing so actually diminishes my status as a citizen. In a democracy, what makes people equal before the state isn’t that everyone has adequate procedural rights. It’s that everyone has the exact same procedural rights. It must be that, in the eyes of the law, there is no difference between rich and poor. If the rich have more rights—if they have fuller status as citizens—then by definition everyone else has fewer rights and lesser status.

—Posted by Peter Z. Scheer

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