In the Declaration of Independence, the founding document of our nation, Thomas Jefferson writes, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” We all know these words, but we rarely take the time to reckon with their meaning. Despite the irony of these truths being stated by slaveowners or the fact that the Founding Fathers most certainly meant “men” and not “people,” those three rights — life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — are as noble today as they ever were.
Protecting the rights of Americans is what the American judicial system is all about. Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of traveling to countries around the globe. Traveling is one of my chief passions and a way for me to see how different cultures operate. As an attorney, I can’t help but notice how the social justice system works in these countries. Let me tell you, we are very lucky to have the judicial structure we do. In many places, citizens are not given any rights to stand up for themselves and hold those in power accountable.
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Before I begin to tell you what makes the American justice system so exceptional, I want to acknowledge that it’s not perfect. There are aspects of the legal process that drive me up the wall. It can be slow, tedious, and wrapped with enough red tape to cover a house. On balance, though, we have a system that serves its people. While that shouldn’t be remarkable in 2019, it absolutely is.
Let’s examine an auto accident case as an example. You’re injured in a car wreck through no fault of your own. Your vehicle is damaged, you’re injured to the point where you can’t work for a few weeks, and you’re stuck with a stack of bills. That’s not fair, so how do you go about seeking restitution? Under the old-school, eye-for-an-eye system, you’d find the person who did it, smash up their vehicle, give ‘em a good beating, and call it vengeance. That approach is, of course, ridiculous and counterproductive.
Instead, we mete out justice using the law. The law requires the person who hit your car to have insurance. In theory, that insurance company pays out the full amount of your damages. But the company has a vested interest in denying your claim and will always try to pay you the least amount possible. To combat this tendency, you have the legal right to bring suit for your damages. In doing so, this system gives you a firm sense that the misdeed is being made up for in concrete terms. Additionally, being able to bring suit against insurance companies deters them from behaving poorly in the future. The law and your ability to exercise it are vital to maintaining a civil society that functions for everybody, not just the select few with vast economic and political resources.
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It’s important to remember that our legal system itself is subject to the influence of money. We must protect the legal rights of everyday folks, or we will be hopeless to stop massive institutions from acting with impunity. To fail to do so would be an injustice on the grandest scale. It would compromise a pillar of the American experience and leave our nation poorer as a result.
That being said, I firmly believe we live in the greatest country on earth and have the best justice system in the world. It’s one of the many great aspects of America that I’ll be celebrating this Fourth of July.
Happy Independence Day, everyone!