September 2009


National Lawyers Guild Legal Observers and representatives from its national office traveled from around the country to Pittsburgh to monitor first-hand the government’s response to the popular uprising against the G-20’s policies, with particular attention to law enforcement’s treatment of protesters.
As we toured the downtown area on Tuesday and Wednesday, we saw signs that most businesses were planning to close on Thursday and Friday due to a fear of violence. Police had erected tall metal barricades in the zone surrounding the Lawrence Convention Center. Some shops were already boarded up, creating the effect of a town readying for a hurricane or other natural disaster. We spoke with several business owners; bitter over the loss of two days’ worth of business, many spoke with palpable anger and clear disdain for protesters — well before protests were actually underway, and based only on the fear created by the media and police.
We must have resembled the iconic protesters, for when we entered one small, local bar to get a bite to eat, we were ignored by the three bartenders standing inches away. Seeing no other patrons, and with no other establishments open, we waited for about ten minutes before receiving menus. Only after we praised them for the good food and beer did they warm up and engage in patron/bartender banter. The owner regaled us with stories of protesters allegedly urinating in the soap dishes of the neighboring restaurant, the truth of which we doubted but that added to the drama of the day. As the Guild has seen before other National Special Security events, in the months leading up to the G-20, most news accounts mentioned the words “violent” or “anarchists” in referencing protesters. We watched local newscasts in which the anchorpersons shook their heads and editorialized about troublemaking protesters. And we saw firsthand the effect of such repetitive, one-sided journalism that ignores the systemic problem of police using increasingly severe military force on civilians.
A few days later, as we left Pittsburgh we ran into several students who had been assaulted by police officers as they were trying to enter campus buildings. Only then did we see the kind of surprised disbelief among those who have had their first encounter of police abuse of authority.
Ultimately, the police deployed an extraordinary array of weapons against protesters, including tear gas and untested LRAD technology. On this score, my further observations ran in a University of Pittsburgh School of Law publication; and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette printed an interesting series of accounts from a variety of people who experienced law enforcement’s overreaction. Our friend, fellow Guild member, and CCR director Bill Quigley also offered an important account and analysis.

Among more than 200 lawyers and law students working to protect the rights of protesters outside the G-20 meetings in Pittsburgh this week is People’s Law Blog co-editor Heidi Boghosian. Her first-hand reporting will be offered later, but the arrival of National Lawyers Guild Legal Observers is already getting attention. Unfortunately, such a presence is necessary in part due to the City Council’s refusal to listen to considered advice, as we reported earlier.

It was a pleasure to see the concept of corporate personhood mentioned in today’s New York Times editorial.  It would be a pleasure indeed to see the concept rethought at the Supreme Court level.  

As has been observed by others, slavery is the legal fiction that a person is property, while corporate personhood is the legal fiction that property is a person.  Nike claimed First Amendment rights when false advertising laws were applied to it when it lied about using sweatshop labor.  Corporate personhood underlies a great deal of litigation, costing untold sums and preventing needed regulation, and is a fiction that needs to be abolished.

Today’s NYT editorial got it wrong only when it tried to moderate the position by suggesting that it is good policy for corporations to have rights.  The argument is internally problematic.  Rights do not rely upon policy determinations.  We might well decide to grant corporations certain privileges, based on a determination that it makes good social policy.  But we should be able to take away those privileges the moment we determine it no longer is in our collective best interests.  

People enjoy rights because we have intrinsic value.  We do not have to make an argument for why we should enjoy basic human and civil rights.  Corporations, on the other hand, are only valuable to the extent that they are doing something for people.  They have no intrinsic value.  This is why human beings have rights even against the majority, while corporations should have to serve the democratic will.   

This is the fundamental problem with corporate personhood:  it turns corporate protections and privileges into enforceable rights, inappropriately binding the democratic process.  The people should be free to burden or privilege corporations at our will, based on our conclusions regarding what makes for good social policy.  At times, corporations might enjoy substantial benefits; but they should never have rights.  

The case involving campaign finance rules before the Court now was not the most obvious way to raise the issue of corporate personhood, but it is a welcome discussion.  (And even made the Colbert Report.) 

Justice is slow—it appears deliberately so—in Alabama. The handling of the case of Jimmie Lee Jackson by Circuit Judge Tommy Jones has the acrid smell of the old south. If the Alabama Council of Concerned Citizens (whose tagline is “Defending the Traditional Southern Way of Life”) has its way, the case would be dismissed as another hoax, which is the word they use to describe the Selma-to-Montgomery march that Jackson’s death helped prompt.
The 76-year-old defendant, former state trooper James Bonard Fowler, tells reporters that he is “tired of the whole thing.” And Judge Tommy Jones has even hired his own attorney. Despite Fowler and Jones, and because of the danger that remaining witnesses may soon be unavailable to testify, this case needs to proceed to trial with all due haste.
Forty-four years ago, on February 18, 1965, Jimmie Lee Jackson tried to protect his mother and grandfather from beatings by Alabama state troopers. It was during a civil rights protest in Marion when voting rights activists were marching to the Perry County Jail to protest the arrest of one of Martin Luther King’s lieutenants, the Reverend James Orange, for organizing blacks around the right to vote. Trooper Fowler shot the young Jackson, resulting in his death eight days later.
It took four decades after the killing, but Fowler was finally indicted in May 2007 thanks to the efforts of Michael Jackson (who is not related to Jimmie Lee Jackson), the first black district attorney for Perry County. Jackson reopened the investigation into the killing and obtained a grand jury murder indictment against Fowler. It’s worth mentioning that Fowler, who is white, was also involved in the fatal shooting of another black man during a confrontation a year after the Jackson shooting, in 1966. He claimed self-defense in both cases. (Rules of evidence will likely prohibit mention of the second killing in the trial we hope will be forthcoming.)
At this time, the trial date has not even been set; and Judge Jones is the holdup. Jones has raised questions about the case, saying that federal and local grand juries reviewing the shooting shortly after it occurred failed to bring charges. Two years ago Jones, in an unusual move that violates state law, asked Jackson to provide a list of prospective trial witnesses and their expected testimony. Jackson appealed to the Alabama Supreme Court, which, in a unanimous ruling, recently said that Alabama’s judicial rules for criminal cases prohibit the disclosure order.
Providing the list of witnesses would likely result in witness intimidation or harassment, something that elderly witnesses had experienced during the civil rights movement. Several witnesses are deceased, and the delays imposed by Judge Jones increase the likelihood that more may die.
Before the trial can proceed, a crucial issue that needs to be resolved is District Attorney Jackson’s motion that Judge Jones recuse himself from the case, citing open political influence on his decisions and lack of objectivity. Jones’s attorney, Susan Copeland, has argued before the Supreme Court that the judge acted within his discretion. Given the import of this case, and that fact that the judge has already violated the state judicial rules, Jones should immediately recuse himself.
Although civil rights museums in Alabama and the National Voting Rights Trail recount the events of 1965 in Jackson’s favor, this trial provides the long-overdue opportunity for the prosecution witnesses to recount what they observed first-hand over four decades ago. To deny them this public hearing is to deny them freedom from old southern “justice.”

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