When Governor Eric Greitens gave his inaugural address moments after he was sworn in as governor of Missouri, he said: “Yet even as we fight for our convictions, we resolve that the greatest conviction, is to love our neighbors as ourselves.”
These lofty words were spoken on Jan. 9, and then in his State of the State Address the Governor had no love in his heart when he said: “For too long in this state, trial lawyers have picked our people’s pockets.” He then advocated reforms to the legal system that he says are designed to stop this thievery of which he speaks.
I have been called many things in my life, but never a thief or a pickpocket. Mr. Greitens’ primary target was out of state lawyers who he says are suing businesses on behalf of out of state clients in Missouri courts. He says that the nastiest lawyers come to do work so dirty and engage in lawsuits so murky that they wouldn’t pass muster anywhere else. He called St. Louis a judicial hellhole, which I assume is where he thinks these nasty out of state lawyers are coming to sue businesses in Missouri.
This concept of judicial hellhole comes from the American Tort Reform Association. It is an organization with members coming from industry and insurance who have formed an alliance to take away the rights of ordinary citizens. They targeted St. Louis as a judicial hellhole based on anecdotal evidence from a couple of cases that were tried there. A handful of cases should not be the basis for widespread reform.
Any attempt to change the laws is an assault on the jury system. The Missouri Constitution says that the right to trial by jury shall remain inviolate. My dictionary defines inviolate as safe from injury or violation; the synonym for inviolate is untouchable. The governor and the folks at the American Tort Reform Association must have a different dictionary.
After Governor Greitens gave his State of the State address, Chief Justice Patricia Breckenridge of the Missouri Supreme Court gave her State of the Judiciary address and downplayed claims that St. Louis and the rest of Missouri is a judicial hellhole. She reminded everyone that less than 1 percent of all cases in Missouri involve wrongful death or personal injury claims. Judge Breckenridge stated that the bulk of Missouri’s civil lawsuits involve small claims, domestic relations cases, landlord-tenant matters and disputes of less than $25,000. The Chief Justice said that Missourians are proud of our courts where they can go to resolve their disputes in a peaceful manner. That the judges up for retention every year are almost all retained with overwhelming majorities supports Judge Breckenridge’s statement that Missourians are proud of their courts. The new governor wants to change that.
The statistics support Judge Breckenridge. The number of civil lawsuits filed in the circuit court in Jackson County was the lowest in 2015 than it has been in several years. Even the civil cases in associate circuit court which are typically collection cases and landlord-tenant cases have dramatically declined in the last 10 years. Immediately after the recession in 2008, the number of collection cases increased dramatically, but have declined since then. There is not a run on the courthouse and people are not filing frivolous lawsuits.
I challenge the people who talk about frivolous lawsuits to show me a few of them. I am not talking about one or two cases. I am talking about finding a host of frivolous lawsuits that justifies taking away the rights of citizens, and harming the right to trial by jury. The next time you see your local legislator, ask him to tell you about a frivolous lawsuit that has been filed in Jackson County. I guarantee you that he or she won’t be able to do it. But some of them will march down to Jefferson City and vote to change the laws in the name of frivolity.
Governor Greitens wants to throw the baby out with the bath water. While he blames trial lawyers for the need for reform, it will actually be the citizens of Missouri who will suffer when they take away your rights. You probably won’t care until some doctor malpractices on you or a family member or a dangerous product destroys your family or some sleazy supervisor sexually harasses your daughter or wife. While it is popular to scorn trial lawyers, we are the guardians of the rights of private citizens, not the non-breathers who want to change the laws.
Shakespeare wrote “let’s kill all of the lawyers” in Henry VI, but it was through the words of Dick the Butcher, an evil man who perceived that killing lawyers would solve societal problems. Perhaps Governor Greitens is the new butcher in town. I would suggest that he be very careful when laying blame at the feet of an entire profession. He was a Navy Seal and would object to any broad description of his brethren based on the acts of a few. He supposedly wants to drain the swamp in Jefferson City, but relying on the advice of the swamp monsters will not aid his cause.
-- Bob Buckley is an attorney in Independence, www.wagblaw.com . Email him at email@example.com