Recently, there have been reports that members of several progressive grassroots organizations involved in campaigns against the pharmaceutical industry's fraud, such as the National Consumers League, are being investigated for attempted barratry. This is the crime of inciting a lawsuit by contacting a potential plaintiff who might not otherwise be inclined to sue, usually without any financial benefit for the guilty party. Most states have a statute prohibiting such activity to discourage ambulance-chasing and other questionable practices. However, in the past century these laws have been invoked almost solely as a tactic to suppress legitimate causes from the litigation connected to the Montgomery bus boycott to the campaign to hold tobacco companies accountable for false advertising. Not only is this selective enforcement unethical, the concept of barratry as a crime subverts some of the most elementary tenets of our justice system.
Firstly, this system provides a person who knows of such duplicity with the illegal choice to make affected citizens aware they are being deceived, or the more inequitable alternative of allowing an unlawful practice to continue untrammeled. Often in cases of widespread corporate wrongdoing, the facts are deliberately couched in esoteric phraseology which renders the affected consumers entirely unable to form a clear picture of their own rights and obligations. Therefore the continuance of square business dealings is to some extent reliant on the willingness of citizen activists to broadcast their discoveries to those impacted by chicanery, so that due action may be initiated.
Secondly, the courts' strict requirements for standing to sue are partially to blame for this quandary. The case of Organic Seed Growers and Trade Ass'n, et al. v. Monsanto, No. 13-303, is an illustration of this. The controversy arose from GMO seed company Monsanto's pattern of prosecuting organic farmers for alleged patent infringement because of cross-pollination from neighboring fields and other forms of inadvertent contamination. The Association and co-plaintiffs sought an injunction on behalf of their 300,000 growers seeking an injunction against this harassment, but the Federal Circuit dismissed the case because Monsanto had never threatened suit against or demanded payment from the Association itself. Not only did this decision hamper any relief in these particular circumstances, it ended one of the only unquestionably safe means to coordinate legal action. Since an organization's right to protect its interests in its own name were thus denied, such institutions are effectively compelled to reach out to individual members in order to organize court challenges - and thereby expose themselves to barratry charges.
Finally, the long-standing principle that neglect to report knowledge of a crime already (or about to be) committed also deepens the dilemma - especially where public officials have declined to act on a matter of grave public importance, such as the overreach of Monsanto or the pharmaceutical cartels. In many instances justice would never be served if injured parties were not made aware of their rights, leaving the unlucky fact-finder with the choice to become either the principal in an instance of barratry or an accessory after the fact in an instance of corporate chicanery. That action on these widespread issues is discouraged or even punished is deeply ironic. If the perpetrator of a common larceny were skillful enough to convince his victim, when his crime was discovered, that he was legally entitled to commit that felony - in such a case as that, any bystander who failed to intervene would doubtlessly find himself the recipient of universal censure for his disregard of basic justice. Cases of corporate fraud, wholesale denial of civil rights, or egregious injury are no different, and yet an observer who speaks out in those instances will be rewarded only with the fear of prosecution.
The prohibition on barratry will probably remain law for the foreseeable future, but simply because it is jurisprudence does not mean it is justice. In my opinion, something is fundamentally wrong with a judicial and legislative organization that has readily overturned or repealed policies such as the strict corporate liability doctrine or the Glass-Steagall banking responsibility law, but leaves this outdated provision on the books to the detriment of true social and economic equality
After years of dismissing activists' ongoing initiative to create consistent GMO labeling standards, the Senate has finally exercised its plenary power and approved a measure that would impose uniform requirements on the food industry.
There's only one little problem.
The proposed law, known as the Roberts-Stabenow bill, does not actually replace the comprehensive state laws it strikes down with any provision for the clear labeling of genetically altered ingredients directly on the package. Instead, it allows corporations to withhold this information by substituting a web address, telephone number or QR code - a form of barcode that can only be scanned and interpreted by certain cell phone apps - for the simple text advisory that already appears on many boxes due to state statutes. This impractical loophole is clearly designed to keep consumers from accessing the very information the Senate supposedly just recognized their right to, and as such is an unreasonable restriction on citizens' liberty to make free and informed personal choices. Even wealthy shoppers will face the considerable obstacle of having to consume minutes, data, and inordinate amounts of time to scan a box, find the correct page on a provided corporate website, or navigate an automated phone system for every article in their carts, when in many states they could formerly turn the package to read the desired statement.
The implications for lower- and middle-class consumers, whose freedom to choose is already hampered by the exorbitant pricing and limited availability of organic foods, are even worse. Many families simply cannot afford the unlimited cellular plans that such incessant telephone calls, usage of phone browsers, and scanning of QR codes would involve; and some do not possess the necessary technology at all. And the alternatives - remembering the corresponding URL for every purchase and visiting every appropriate website, or dialing a long list of numbers at home to listen to robotic messages - cannot possibly take place prior to purchasing the products in question, and therefore do not serve in any way to inform the customer's purchasing decision. This disparate impact is yet another reason that the compromise contained in Roberts-Stabenow has no practical positive effect on the shopping process, in reality.
Obviously, our elected officials have once more chosen duplicitous corporations like Monsanto over the well-being of their constituents. This Senatorial sellout can still be rejected by the House of Representatives, though, and it is imperative that they do so. Passage of the law would hinder any future attempts to close the technological loopholes, and place an unfair burden on the consumer in the simple endeavor to retain some authority over our own bodies.