Katrianna Brisack: January 2016 Archives

On Certiorari With Michael Carvin

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SC.jpgJust this month, the Supreme Court heard argument in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, (14-915), a high-profile case about whether or not "agency shop" arrangements between a labor union and a public-sector employer violate the First Amendment. This question has not been brought in front of the Court as a broad constitutional issue since 1977, when these bargains were adjudged permissible in Abood v. Detroit Bd. of Education (431 U.S. 209) - and the legal landscape has undeniably shifted since then. The membership of the Court has changed entirely, and its interpretation of free speech has evolved almost as drastically.

The question presented in this new challenge is rather vague, partly because it is so precisely tailored to the circumstances of the cause. The decision, however, will definitely affect more than this individual dispute between an elementary-school teacher and the association she doesn't believe she should be forced to subsidize - so I tried to find out how the petitioners' main lawyer, Michael Carvin, envisions the legacy of their case.

Their brief gives us a fairly good idea of what they are specifically asking the Court to do. The surefooted style is the first thing that strikes you about Mr. Carvin's latest Supreme Court creation, which weaves punchy lines from familiar opinions such as Citizens United v. FEC (558 U.S. 310) and West Virginia v. Barnette (319 U.S. 624) in with a direct, uncomplicated argument. However, neither it nor the recent oral arguments provide much political perspective on the question or indicate the extent to which a reversal might impact other areas of labor law.

Therefore, I reached out to Mr. Carvin for answers to some of the questions that occurred to me while I was reading and listening to his positions. According to him, the vital element of this delicate constitutional equation is the government as the employer. Similar agreements between a union and a private corporation would be allowed, as would contracts requiring a worker to become a member of a specific union. Interestingly, though, he did not rule out the possibility that victory on his part could open the door to "yellow dog" conditions in public sector jobs (that is, contracts which prohibit union activity by employees, so named because early unions looked on signers as being "lower than yellow dogs"). He justified this by pointing out that both the S.C. and President Franklin D. Roosevelt believed that, in his words, "there is no constitutional right to collective bargaining with a public employer."

Both sides have legitimate concerns as to the application of the eventual ruling, and their worries are far from premature. The decision is unlikely to be rendered anytime before June, but its heritage as a precedent and the issues it deals with will continue to influence American politics and law for decades after that. Yet, as incontrovertibly important as the right to organize remains, the implications of forcing public workers to subsidize private interests of any kind could prove disastrous.

Say No To Kangaroo Courts

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Kangaroo.jpgAs I mentioned in my last installment of this series, TPP would eviscerate this country's already weak control over product safety. However, one argument in favor of weakening jurisdiction rules and long-arm statutes is that such an extensive reach would expose our businesses and government agencies to lengthy and costly lawsuits against them by foreign entities.

Enter the Investor-State Dispute Settlement system.

This is a binding arbitration agreement that allows corporations to challenge U.S. regulations without ever even submitting to the procedures and precedents of U.S. courts. Instead of impartial judges, they go up before a panel which, more often than not, would be made up of highly-paid lawyers from firms specializing in defending corporations and challenging government ordinances. Yet these judges would not be forbidden from practicing law between times, and in some cases representing the very parties they have just passed a judgment on. Instead of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure or any comparable code, they would operate on a perplexing hybrid of multinational standards.

All the gains this country has made since the Roosevelt administration stand to be reversed. Any increases in the minimum wage, and possibly even our existing wages and hours laws, could be thrown over. What's left of our clean air regulations once our courts are through with them could be dismantled even further. Food safety measures dating back to 1906 are once again in danger of being arbitrarily struck down. Worst of all, though, because this tribunal's jurisdiction is reserved for cases brought by "international investors," U.S. companies, labor unions, and government agencies would still have to enforce the more liberal terms of the agreement in foreign legal systems, which are often inferior in their procedural safeguards and common law decisions.

It is hard for me to believe that we have spent so many decades and centuries attempting to improve our existing justice system and insure the fairness of every detail only to abandon it at the behest of outlaw corporations and their smooth-talking stooges. Yet, if Congress does approve the TPP, it will be rejecting our values of substantive justice at enormous cost to American consumers and workers.

Say No to Jurisdictional Limbo

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The proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal would authorize outsourcing to Asia on an unprecedented scale. Widespread job loss and tax evasion would obviously result - however, an unforeseen consequence might also be the loss of U.S. jurisdiction over the wrongdoing of foreign corporations.

This side effect of international commerce is far from coincidental. Rather, for both the alien manufacturers contracting to supply goods to this country and the domestic distributors of the imports, it has long been the perfect arrangement to insure that neither has to pay the cost of any negligence that may have occurred in the construction of the product.

The problem began, on its current scale, in 1987, with the Supreme Court's decision in Asahi Metal Industry Co. v. Superior Court of California, 480 U.S. 102 (1987). This case involved a motorcycle accident attributable to defects in the vehicle's rear tire, which injured Gary Zurcher and killed his wife Ruth. The maker of the tire tube, Asahi, did not even bother to dispute the facts in a products liability suit brought the next year. Rather, it claimed that California courts could not exercise jurisdiction over it because its base of business was Taiwan and it had no contacts with California. Shockingly, the Court agreed with this claim, reversing the lower courts even over the objection of local businesses who felt that their decision to remain in this country had gone unrewarded.

If the facts of this case inspire a strange sense of deja vu, that might be because similar injustices continue to occur on an everyday basis throughout this country. Currently, the Japanese-based company Takata is attempting to escape liability for its lethal airbags under similar logic. In our recent memory, airplane owners and operators have shirked responsibility for preventable crashes, fabricators of foodstuffs, cosmetics, and medicines have marketed toxins with impunity, and factories selling their wares here have pointedly refused to comply with the most basic of our regulations. Far from the safeguard of "fair play and substantial justice" the Asahi decision claimed itself to be, it has caused our international economy to deteriorate into a lawless, deceitful exchange of tainted or dangerous goods.

However, we are far from helpless in the face of this judicial anarchy. Many states have adopted comprehensive "long-arm" statutes which locally overrule Asahi and similar decisions, restoring some sense of accountability to their commercial law. Massachusetts extends its reach to any company or individual who "derives substantial revenue from goods used or consumed or services rendered, in this commonwealth." New York takes it even further, not even requiring that the "substantial revenue" come from within the state as long as it originates from "interstate or international commerce" of any sort. The U.S. law, though, is not nearly so comprehensive, largely restricting federal jurisdiction to situations either of waiver or "in which the action is based upon a commercial activity carried on in the United States by the foreign state; or upon an act performed in the United States in connection with a commercial activity of the foreign state elsewhere." 28 U.S.C. §1605. This will offer almost no protection against defects in the millions of imports that will flood our market if the TPP indeed goes into effect.

I recall that Justice Cardozo once said that "it is possible to use almost anything in a way that will make it dangerous if defective" - and clearly such faulty global policy will indeed be highly hazardous. Therefore, instead of opening the door even further to a practice already costing millions in unpaid damages and an inestimable amount of distress, injury and grief, maybe our government should focus on repairing the laws already in place.

About this Archive

This page is a archive of recent entries written by Katrianna Brisack in January 2016.

Katrianna Brisack: December 2015 is the previous archive.

Katrianna Brisack: February 2016 is the next archive.

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