Income Inequality and Access to Justice: Len Schroeter Got it Years Ago

Income Inequality and Access to Justice: Len Schroeter Got it Years Ago

By Arthur Bryant

Justice lost a great advocate and friend late last month, Len Schroeter. Len was brilliant, passionate, warm, complex, constitutionally resistant to authority (in both senses of the word), and totally committed to justice for all. The Seattle Times obituary only begins to convey what made him special. Len understood the big picture in a way few people did – and pushed all of us to do so and take action. 

Len was visionary, spoke from the heart and didn’t mince words. In 1987, he wrote about income equality and fighting for access to justice. In an article titled (in his understated manner), “Cutting Through the Bullshit*,” he said, in part:

Many of us here are able to recall the endless months and years of that national miasma called McCarthyism. This was a time Dalton Trumbo called “the time of the toad.” This was a time when the late Roy Cohn set the tone, and determined the mandatory political morality for America. This was a time when even the brave became craven, and the multitude became silent. This was a time when I sustained myself by saying – “This, too, shall pass.”….

But we must also remember that terrible times can extend and entrench themselves; that tyranny can be institutionalized, if we are disabled by comfort or cowardice from cutting through the bullshit, and trumpeting loudly and clearly the emperor’s nakedness….

The plaintiff’s bar is not only under attack, but our opponents seek to destroy us, because of the enormous economic success we have had on behalf of victims and because, by our success in products liability, drug and toxic tort litigation, we have not only protected consumer victims, but we have forced off the market dangerous products, resulting in billions and billions of dollars of loss to corporate America.

Len said the then-new American Tort Reform Association’s president, James K. Coyne, had shown his hand in stating that the tort system does not exist “to assess fault, but to compensate any victim from any source and to compensate the lawyers themselves. The courts should not be used to redistribute income.”  Len’s response:

This is, of course, a candid statement of the real problem. It is the redistribution of income that is so offensive to America’s economic royalists. It is the notion that the rich, directly or indirectly, should have to pay for what they do to their victims, that they want reversed. The thousand-year-old basic principle that for every right there must be a remedy, is abhorred.

What could be more fundamental than the basic constitutional principle that where there is a right there must be a remedy?

When we occupy the high ground, we become the protectors of societally valuable relationships, many of them honed in professional ethics that are 2,000 years old.

I submit to you that the attorney-client relationship lies at the basis of our understanding of due process and the rule of law.

I submit to you that the jury system is the heart of participatory democracy.

I suggest to you that the primacy of individual human rights is what we are all about.

If practicing law were only to make rich people richer, who of us would practice such law? But our practice dignifies man and ennobles those we serve. The health of tort law measures the vitality of our system of justice. We need to assert this basic truth again and again and again, until we are heard and our cause is respected.

For those of you not familiar with it, ATRA is the group that, among other things, issues a report every year labeling the jurisdictions where corporations are held accountable “judicial hellholes.”

I am honored that Len was a Founder and proud member of Public Justice. He served on our Board of Directors for decades and spurred the creation of a special committee – the Watchdog & Outrage Committee – to be vigilant in seeing and challenging injustice.

Len Schroeter got it years ago. He is no longer with us, but his words and vision can still help guide us. Keep fighting!

* The article was first published by Washington state’s Trial News with the title Cutting through the crap is the beginning of wisdom. It was subsequently published in another law journal with the title he wanted.

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