By Mark David Blum, Esq.
Intense lobbying by the American Legion has motivated one of America’s most bigoted Senators to introduce legislation preventing attorneys who pursue civil rights cases from collecting attorney fees. The American Legion, now nothing more than the long arm of the Christian Militia, decries that lawyers get paid for protecting the civil rights of all Americans; including whacked out Christians.
I have been trying Civil Rights cases in State and Federal Courts since 1992. Such cases are labor intensive, unpopular, resented, and the Plaintiffs are not generally stellar citizens. As a general rule, civil rights violations … malicious prosecutions, false arrests, excessive uses of force, denial of due process, voting interference, and religious oppression … all tend to occur to the poor, the weak, and the minorities in society. The affluent, the powerful, and the well established would never tolerate such unconstitutional behavior. These folks know how to fight back, to use their resources for gain, and to mostly avoid the illegal behaviors of government. Also, these folks tend to be in the majority and thus are protected from the types of behavior that prompt civil rights cases.
When Congress first passed the civil rights statutes (42 U.S.C. §1983 et seq.), they understood that the weakest and poor in society could never afford competent counsel to stand up for their rights. Ultimately what motivates all of us is pecuniary gain. Many civil rights violations also include no personal injury and even lack any real malice by the government agent. Consequently, there really is no available ‘contingency’ remuneration in many of these cases.
Recognizing this vulnerability and lack of legal resources for the poor, Congress made it a part of the law that if a Plaintiff in a civil rights case prevails on his cause, then the losing party has to pay attorney fees. The law is written both ways such that even a losing defendant (State or municipality) can come after the Plaintiff for attorney fees as well.
But the provision in the law that provides for attorney fees must remain. There is no other incentive for government to behave. The private citizen has no control over the criminal justice system and the poor and weak member of society is mostly shunned from the political process. These are the people who tend to have their freedoms trampled most. Capturing attorney fees at the end of a success prosecution is a fair and reasonable compensation for what I can tell you are among the most difficult and complex cases around.
The cost of attorney fees at times is the only incentive for a municipality or government actor to behave constitutionally. Here in Syracuse, the former chief attorney for the City swore a blood oath back in 2004 to litigate to verdict and appeal every since case brought against the City and will pay all damages found against city officials, including punitive damages. Given these type of shameful tactics, the potential for an attorney fee award may be the only incentive a government has to act properly. One good verdict usually resolves many political issues as these same politicians will have to explain to their constituencies the monies being spent on litigation.
If the right wing Christian crazies and its new military wing, the American Legion succeed in their crusade, non Christians in the United States will be at great risk of religious oppression. Senator Sam ‘Creationist’ Brownback from Kansas would have the cost of litigation … win, lose, or draw, to be born by the Plaintiff. He is trying to shield communities from having to act within constitutional framework.
The blowback from Brownback’s legislation will forever cripple the citizen’s ability to stand up to illegal government actions. If we take away the route of the Courts, then the only option left is found in the Second Amendment. Ironic is it not, how the American Legion; established to honor those who fought for the causes of freedom and liberty and to keep our Constitution safe from all enemies foreign and domestic, is now running point on the assault on our rights?
Shame on the American Legion for they bring great dishonor to the uniform and flag of this nation. It is the weakest and most poor among us who present the face of the true America. How we treat them reveals our heart. Slamming shut the court house door denies them equality. While Senator Brownback may have a lengthy history of being anti American, for the American Legion to take up arms in Brownback’s cause is an act of pure treason.