Posts Tagged ‘Citizens United’

Review of Hot Coffee

Picture a world where a rapist can execute a contract in advance, limiting his liability for his deeds, and furthermore, forbidding his victims access to the courts for reparations.  Such a contract would limit any such “trial” to an informal hearing before a friend of the rapist.  Which way do you think that friend will decide?  Exactly.  Some world, right?  Guess what?  You already live in it.

But, you say, I would never sign such a contract.  I would never give away my right to go to court.  Even for less serious matters, I would not sign my rights away.  You probably wouldn’t.  Or, at least, you wouldn’t knowingly sign such a contract, or you wouldn’t if you had a choice.  The thing is, if you have a credit card or cellphone, you’ve already signed such a contract.

Nice world, right?

Hot Coffee is a documentary which had its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, and is now airing on HBO.  Hot Coffee explores these recent phenomena in a succinct and easy to understand style.  The exposition of the facts has clever cuts to people-on-the-street interviews that further underscore the average person’s misconceptions.  I count myself among those possessors of common misconceptions.  These interviews helped me feel less ignorant, or less alone in my ignorance.  Thank you, Director Susan Saladoff, for that.

It wasn’t surprising to me that none of the interviewees could define a tort.  In law school we spent a semester exploring what a tort is.  Many fine legal minds will refuse to put an absolute definition on the term.  The one I decided to live with is “actionable civil wrong.”  That is to say, a tort is a harm for which a lawsuit can be filed.  Examples of torts include slander, libel, malpractice, negligence, and product liability.

But the public misconceptions run deeper than legalese and esoterica.  How did we arrive at these misconceptions?  Is it merely collective indifference?  Perhaps, in part.  But a larger share of the blame goes to the Karl Roves of the world, and their clients, Messrs. Reagan and Bush, and many more.  More particularly, it’s the result of the Rovian’s effective spin-doctoring.

You see, it turns out corporations like candidates who will push for laws which limit their liability.  Corporations give those candidates tons of money.  And politicians like money.  Money gets them into office.  Plus, as the Supreme Court has held: money is speech.  Throw in 2010’s Citizen’s United decision, which held that corporate funding of independent political broadcasts cannot be limited, and that money-speech has no boundaries.  So who has a bigger megaphone, you and I, or those with corporate backing?

One of the scary parts is the corporations aren’t satisfied with electing Representatives, Senators, Governors, and Presidents.  Oh no.  Those people only create and enact the laws.  But the laws can be overturned by courts.  So the corporations help fund the elections of judges too.  Now that’s REALLY scary.  Get enough judges on a state supreme court, and those laws will be upheld.  And the corporations will save money.  It’s a sound investment for the corporations, with a solid rate of return.

Now it’s not like you’ll see “Joe Smith for Supreme Court, sponsored by Coca Cola.”  No.  First the corporations fund the US Chamber of Commerce, or ATRA (Association for Tort Reform), and then they in turn finance a whole slew of organizations that look like our neighbors started them, such as Citizens Against Frivolous Lawsuits, or Moms Against Bad Judges.  It’s all very convincing.  These people know what they’re doing.

The spin-doctors have a simple scheme.  Coin a phrase that people can rally to, and pound the point home with truckloads of cash and highly visible speakers.  “Tort Reform” is an excellent example.  The phrase is catchy.  People can rally to it, especially when they don’t know exactly what a tort is, and the spin-doctors choose their archetypes cannily.  They leave out key facts, and make caricatures of the lawsuits.  Hot Coffee explores examples of this very well.  And “Reform”?  Who isn’t for reform?  Reform is about changing things that are horribly wrong.  However, if you were a victim of corporate misbehavior, you wouldn’t see the tort system as being horribly wrong.  But once you’re a victim, it’s too late.  They count on that.  And it works.

Some hold we need tort “reform.”  And they paint an appealing case for it.  Sure, sign on.  Feel good.  Help save the poor “victims” of tort law, such as tobacco companies who promote products known to be deadly and addictive, and carmakers who ignore defects in their vehicles which kill people.  You can support that, right?  I didn’t think so.  Torts help redress prior wrongs and prevent future wrongs.  We need that.  Perhaps the more accurate phrasing of what the Rovians are trying to do is Tort Deform.

Do we want to live in a Corpocracy?  A Corporation Nation?  Do we already?  Should their voices be louder than ours?  Should their “votes” count more?  See the excellent documentary, Hot Coffee, and decide for yourself.