Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Review - See you in Court

Thomas Geoghegan is a long-time Chicago labor attorney who has thrown his hat in the ring for the vacated U.S. House seat being vacated by new White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel. Kathy G. of blog The G Spot has been hitting his candidacy hard since he announced; she clearly feels that Geoghegan would be a huge positive in the seat. (I won't link to any specific post, as it's pretty much the only topic she's been writing about - just go to the blog and look around.)

Her ardency is so pronounced, not only about his beliefs, but about his writing, that I went to the library and picked up a copy of his most recent book, See you in Court: How the Right Made America a Lawsuit Nation (2007). My review is, I'm sorry to say, mixed.

First, the good. Geoghegan's contention is that changes to the law have created a world in which the law is seen as arbitrary by average citizens. He is passionate on the subject that changes to the law over the past 30 years, whether deliberately cooked up by special interest groups, or well-meant changes that have suffered the Law of Unintended Consequences, have all conspired to make the legal system either rigged or capricious. Basic principles of equity and democracy have been subverted, all to the detriment of the little guy and, ultimately, the republic.

At its best, this book provides a useful counterpart to High Wire, Peter Gosselin's excellent book about the ways in which risk has been shifted from the institutions best equipped to handle it to the people and families who have the smallest safety net. It's often quite entertaining as it focuses on the legal system, as opposed to Gosselin's broader look at the trends in American society.

Unfortunately, that is also its undoing, as Geoghegan gets fairly deep (at least for me) into the arcana of our legal system. I'm fairly well-read, but I have no basis for deciding if the move from contract to tort law, for example, has as dire consequences as presented here. He is an unabashed "lefty," though I'm not really sure how he defines that exactly, so all of these changes and their deleterious effects are the results of right-wing conspiracy or incompetence. (Given the acquiescence of the left in areas in which I do have some knowledge, I'm not sure that we need to focus solely on the right in formulating our enemies' list.)

The information just spills out across the pages of the book - it is clearly the product of a feverishly thinking mind - but it too often lacks a focus that would put it all into context. I have no doubt that our legal system suffers from many problems, but I can't say that this book convinced me that an unwillingness to follow "the fourth footnote" is really a major one.

There are solutions, naturally, and I will admit that I have no basis for determining if they're the best we could come up with. I do know that most of them have no hope of being implemented, though I'd like to see them put on the table. For example, I had never considered the idea of moving toward European-style workers' councils, and it seems appealing to give employees some power over issues that affect them. At the same time, we are seeing a massive depowerization of employees in this country, so this "solution" is not one at all.

In summary, this is a book worth reading, especially if you want a liberal take on the legal system. If you have the level of knowledge I do, there are some skimmable areas, but there is still a lot of worthwhile material.

(By the way, I have no real opinion on Geoghegan's candidacy. I'm electioned out, and am not going to spend time before next month's primary evaluating the many candidates in a race in which I have no direct interest.)

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