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Eric Mains: #MeToo‐ Is Social Justice a Viable Alternative to a Flawed and Compromised Judicial System?

Posted by Neil Garfield | December 11, 2017

La Revolucion

# MeToo and #MineToo revolución!

By Eric Mains, J.D, Former Federal Bank Regulator

In the last few months we have seen a literal wave of the wealthy and influential falling from grace, losing their positions of power and ducking for cover as their conduct becomes scrutinized in media and social media. They have become keenly aware if they have something to hide in their past or present that maybe, just maybe, the specter of justice, fate, retribution…call it what you will, but a reckoning of some sort may finally be coming for them.

The key difference from what we have experienced in the recent past is this is not just a few token individuals who are intentionally being sacrificed by other peers just to placate the masses, to give us a sense that there is justice out there, while a majority of the remaining transgressors remain free to go about business as usual. Until recently perpetrators of sexual harassment could expect their violations to either go unreported, or if reported by a victim to a typically "helpful" HR representative at a major corporation, would likely result in that persons termination shortly afterwards or a hushed payout and dismissal from employment. So, what's changed? Why this sudden firestorm in the specific areas of sexual harassment & civil rights?

Well for one, the rise of social media giving voice to those who were previously either too intimidated or too ashamed to go through the regular channels of our justice system or report incidents to mainstream media. The lessening of any stigma attached with coming forward over allegations of sexual misconduct or workplace harassment to be sure; but perhaps more overlooked has been the slowly building tension from all corners of America with a justice system that over the past few decades has become ever more inaccessible and ever more compromised for certain victims.

The courts in America have slowly devolved (or evolved, depending on your perspective) into a long, drawn-out, pay-for-play system which favors those with the most money and connections. They can hire consultants to figure out how to pick and influence juries, and to try and maneuver into the most favorable venues with the most sympathetic judges. Whether the offense is sexual misconduct, civil rights violations, foreclosure fraud, etc., in many cases if the transgressors have enough resources, they are likely to see a deminimus sentence and little punishment handed out. This disparity in a lack of justice for victims, as compared with other areas of the law, has long existed due to the perceptions surrounding the victims by those in the public and in the system as well.

The above may sound cynical to some, or simply a self‐evident statement of the way things are to others. Those in the former category, who are true believers in our current justice system, may think that movements like #MeToo are just mob justice, devoid of the kind of impartial and logical dissemination of fact based justice they believe our current system provides. To them, it represents chaos, it threatens the foundational platitude that, "We are a nation of laws," with a system that meets out justice in a generally fair and impartial manner while ensuring the innocent aren't wrongly accused or convicted. That would be a valid sentiment-IF backed factually by a system that did function as such a majority of the time. Most would simply point out to the supporters of our current system that unless they have had blinders on for the past 200 years, they would notice our system has done a pretty haphazard job at providing for such an idealized form of justice in practice.

Don't get me wrong, having a law degree and having worked as a government regulator I want to be able to have more faith in our justice system and the rule of law, faith that we do have mostly impartial and fair judges, and a court system accessible and open for equal justice to all. I still remember from my law school days something that particularly offended me at the time, when one of my professors stated matter-of-factly to our property law class the futility of assuming case law or precedent was necessarily going to ensure victory in the court room, "Unfortunately, most of the time the law is what the judge says it is, heh, heh, haauurrgh." In hindsight, Professor Rooney was right, and the reality of our justice system keeps smacking I & my former classmates in the face daily just to drive home that point. Looking at a crosscut of some recent data and analysis of our nations various court systems shows the general problems petitioners/consumers/victims run into once inside it.

Consider access to the judicial system: In a Propublica study of bankruptcy filings, it found for those residing in majority black zip codes who file for bankruptcy, the odds of having their cases dismissed (and failing to attain lasting relief) were more than twice as high as those of debtors living in mostly white zip codes. Why? In general, it was driven by money. Impoverished filers could not afford to file for the costlier Chapter 7 cases as opposed to Chapter 13's, resulting in less of their unaffordable debt loads being relieved. They, ironically, could not afford to get lasting relief from the bankruptcy system because of immediate financial distress. A facial review of our justice system shows one in which only those with income below stated poverty lines can access free legal help in general, and that help is generally outgunned and outmanned. Got $200‐$350 to file your court case and pay for your attorney fees/retainer in a civil matter otherwise? Not likely, and a pretty good chunk of those between the $20K-50K range really can't afford the cost of entry in civil litigation, and are quickly priced out of the game when litigating against corporations. Why not take advantage of some impartial arbitration if you can't sue?…don't make me laugh.

How about impartiality in judicial decisionmaking? In a recent paper, Judging the Judiciary by the Numbers: Empirical Research on Judges, by Jeffrey Rachlinski (Cornell) & Andrew Wistrich (CA Central Dist. Ct.), the authors found that just like most humans, judges succumb to various “mental shortcuts” that can lead them to mistakes. The paper’s abstract reads "Do judges make decisions that are truly impartial? A wide range of experimental and field studies reveal that several extra‐legal factors influence judicial decision making. Demographic characteristics of judges and litigants affect judges' decisions.

Judges also rely heavily on intuitive reasoning in deciding cases, making them vulnerable to the use of mental shortcuts that can lead to mistakes. Furthermore, judges sometimes rely on facts outside the record and rule more favorably towards litigants who are more sympathetic or with whom they share demographic characteristics. On the whole, judges are excellent decision makers, and sometimes resist common errors of judgment that influence ordinary adults. The weight of the evidence, however, suggests that judges are vulnerable to systematic deviations from the ideal of judicial impartiality." See Cornell Legal Studies Research Paper No. 17-32, July 2017 at https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2979342

Racial and gender discrimination in decisionmaking? In Examining Empathy: Discrimination, Experience, and Judicial Decisionmaking, by Laura Beth Nielsen & Jill Weinberg of Northwestern University, a 2012 paper at http://www.americanbarfoundation.org/uploads/cms/documents/weinberg_nielsen_-_examining_empathy.pdf , the researchers reported that white federal judges are about four times more likely to dismiss race discrimination cases outright, and are half as likely as black federal judges to rule in favor of people alleging racial harassment in the workplace.

The authors argue this is because African American judges have likely experienced discrimination themselves, and therefore they can recognize more complex and subtle forms of racial harassment. How about gender bias in sexual assault cases? "A Baltimore detective said 90% of sexual‐assault cases are ‘bulls—,’ but that’s just the start of the department’s problems."

A DOJ investigation in Missoula in 2014 noted the following "Despite their prevalence in the community, sexual assaults of adult women are given low priority in the County Attorney's Office; The County Attorney does not provide Deputy County Attorneys with the basic knowledge and training about sexual assault necessary to effectively and impartially investigate and prosecute these cases; The County Attorney's Office generally does not develop evidence in support of sexual assault prosecutions, either on its own or in cooperation with other law enforcement agencies; Adult women victims, particularly victims of non-stranger sexual assault and rape, are often treated with disrespect, not informed of the status of their case and revictimized by the process; and The County Attorney's Office routinely fails to engage in the most basic communication about its cases of sexual assault with law enforcement and advocacy partners." This is a 2014 report of just one city&helip;ever wonder why women from the 1970's, 80's & 90's often never bothered/dared reporting any assaults until now? Enough said.

Racial discrimination in sentencing? In a first of its kind report from 2014-2015, The Herald-Tribune in Florida spent a year reviewing tens of millions of records in two state databases. Among the stated findings: "Florida's sentencing system is broken. When defendants score the same points in the formula used to set criminal punishments — indicating they should receive equal sentences — blacks spend far longer behind bars. There is no consistency between judges in Tallahassee and those in Sarasota. There's little oversight of judges in FL. The courts keep a wealth of data on criminal defendants. So does the prison system. But no one uses the data to review racial disparities in sentencing. Judges themselves don't know their own tendencies. Across FL, when a white and black defendant score the same points for the same offense, judges give the black defendant a longer prison stay in 60% of felony cases. For the most serious first-degree crimes, judges sentence blacks to 68% more time than whites with identical points. For burglary, it’s 45% more. For battery, it's 30%."

Consistency in decision making and opinions based on case precedent? In a Nevada Law Journal paper entitled Stare Decisis In The Inferior Courts Of The United States, by Joseph W. Mead, his abstract notes "circuit courts are bound to follow circuit precedent under "law of the circuit" the practice among federal district courts is more varied and uncertain, routinely involving little or no deference to their own precedent" While I simply don't have room for his full analysis here, I will note he concludes his paper in part as follows "But we are now left with a puzzle. If district courts indeed possess the power to either adopt the law of the district or require some other level of deference to precedent, and there are good reasons to do so, why have so few followed this path? I think the answer is not that district courts are choosing not to, but that they have not yet given the matter consideration."

Foreclosure Bias? That's an entire book, just ask David Dayen who wrote Chain of Title, or Abigail Field who accurately noted back in 2011, "Not all judges are confronting the issues in the same way. Many are adopting procedures to stop any fraudulent behavior by the banks and are investigating questionable documents submitted in their cases. Other judges are turning a blind eye, at best."

While I will save that aspect for a near future article, I will simply note that some judges going beyond turning a blind eye; they are straying into obstruction of justice, using a "selectively creative" doctoring of fact patterns from homeowner complaints to suit their narratives when issuing rulings, or just outright failing to address motions to correct error or address black letter law when challenged by attorneys. Par for the course, especially in the federal court system, which took a shamefully compromised former AG Eric Holder's call to consider his TBTF/sympathy for the devil ideology in favor of Wall Street banks, and the fed courts ran like Usain Bolt with it (All while Holder's temporarily vacant office was being kept warm at Covington & Burling, and Fannie Mae & Freddie Mac were being systemically looted by the Obama administration). A recent article discusses how the black community and consumers suffered in the name of this flawed ideology, Destruction Of Black Wealth During The Obama Presidency (by Ryan Cooper and Matt Bruenig).

I know what many are thinking at this point: "So What? What are you telling us we don't already know? The justice system is not perfect, it never will be, but it's functional, and it's the best we have to work with!" It would be the last part of that sentence that I would wholeheartedly disagree with, and why a platform like #MeToo is now becoming an important, and I think very valid, social justice alternative. Our system is not the best it can be in part because we have come to accept the fallacy that judges, politicians, prosecutors, police, CEO's, talk news hosts, etc., those who help to shape, influence, or enforce our justice system in different ways, should be held to a different level of accountability, job performance, and social review than the rest of society.

You screw up on your job, make a bad decision that costs the company, hurts clients/constituents, and choose to allow an illegal or immoral activity to take place?-FIRED! Those in the aforementioned categories? Insider trading based on stock tips you get in office, OK! Screw over constituents/rear end a petitioner because his mother dresses him funny? That's valid! Harass your office assistant or underling? You gave them a job, and they knew the game, grin and bear it! I could go on, but need not. Not only do those with access and who benefit from the system not want change, but those who work within it often don't recognize the need for change (See Mead & FL Herald Tribune report, supra). Those within it don't tend to question the biases that have been ingrained in them when they do make decisions (See Rachlinski, Nielsen, etc., supra). They are subject to undue influence by those with access and money who know how to "work" the justice system.

I routinely quote, and will continue to quote Frederick Douglass, because 150 years later the reality he highlighted has not changed one iota, "Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress." Church Frederick! If we must accept that our system is biased, broken, and not soon to change, how the hell can we expect to wrangle justice out of it when all avenues for influencing seem out of our control? That's where Douglass recognized the simplicity of the truth, and so does #MeToo‐It's demand! It's fear of a collective and sizeable retribution for ignoring social justice & common morality. Itís creating consequences outside of a non‐functional system that ultimately can lead to change in that system. Social media has given a voice to those who have not had a simple, affordable, accessible platform to demand justice denied them. Technology has now made that possible, and another old adage has proven itself to be as true as ever‐"Cockroaches scurry under the light"

Can the wrong perpetrators of alleged crimes be identified or wrongly harassed by a # MeToo movement? Yes, but that risk is also true in the current system. Laws are in place to protect or compensate the innocent or wrongly accused, as well as punish those who knowingly make false statements. If the law and our justice system is a search for truth and justice, then maybe # MeToo will help expedite the administration of this in a system where it has been delayed and denied those without money and a voice. Maybe it's time for a few more platforms like it from civil rights violations to fraudulent foreclosure…. Maybe it's time to remind those in our system who they are there to work for, and demand they do a better job of it… to demand a change from them and our system instead of quietly submitting….Viva la # MeToo revolución!

Editor’s note: Perhaps the wronged homeowner’s call to arms simply starts with a simple hashtag called #MineToo. If you have been victimized by a loan servicer or foreclosed on fraudulently tweet #MineToo!!!

 

 

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