Jewish World Review March 6, 2003 / 2 Adar II, 5763

Drs. Michael A. Glueck & Robert J. Cihak

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Consumer Reports


Legal metastases are killing us


http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | We diagnose cancer in the American legal system. Like cancer cells that replicate uncontrollably, ultimately destroying the life upon which they feed, our legal system has become malignant.

The problem with the legal profession is that it has metastasized. The usual human imperfections and professional self-protection that were once tolerable are now deadly. With lawyers as with everything else, it's the dosage that matters!

No one who has experienced cancer, enduring it or treating it or watching loved ones struggle against it, should or would ever use the word as a facile metaphor. We certainly don't. But once a legal tactic becomes cancerous and metastasizes (spreads) the body politic deteriorates rapidly. We suggest all states take action against extortion abuses by lawyers.

These legal metastases can found at all levels of government all over the country. We already know too much about the proliferation of statute, precedent, and regulatory edict beyond all possibility of human comprehension, let alone obedience. The metastasis of civil justice, the evolution of the lawsuit from redress-of-harm to political and business weapon, and to pure extortion, we know about. But something else is happening that seems to us cancerous in the most literal sense of the word.

As an example, in California, lawyers filed over 1.5 million new civil actions in 2001. Some of these came about via loopholes in Section 17200 of the state's Business and Professions Code. In essence, this provides unscrupulous and profiteering attorneys with the power to sue anyone at any time, with no prior evidence or allegations of harm, even without a complaining client.

For a filing fee of $214, plus the minor cost of downloading and filling out the appropriate forms, some lawyers launch near-identical lawsuits against hundreds of essentially innocent victims. Small businesses, especially immigrant-owned enterprises, are these lawyers' favorite targets. Suing them by the batch seems their favorite tactic.

Maryann Maloney, Executive Director of Orange County Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse (OCCALA), notes: "The procedure is simple. Set up some sort of bogus 'watchdog' group as a front. Target those with neither the resources nor the will to fight back."

In other words, poke around until you find a garage or beauty salon or restaurant in violation of some law or regulation or ordinance, even if it's only the lack of a signature on some paperwork. Let the owners know how expensive and bad-for-business a lawsuit would be. Then graciously offer to settle.

In one instance some California lawyers informed hundreds of potential defendants they could settle for $2,000 each if they paid the lawyers by week's end, but that the price would go up to $5,000 apiece by the following Monday.

These lawsuits and other local varieties around the country serve no public good. They escalate costs which drive away businesses and shrink the tax base; most importantly, they destroy human dreams and lives.

The lawyers who use these lawsuits as tools of extortion are cancers upon our economy, culture and body politic. They should be treated accordingly and removed from their profession with the finality of surgery. Tumors and healthy tissue cannot coexist indefinitely.

But even if California Attorney General Bill Lockyer and the state bar association act with unprecedented honesty and efficiency - they say they're "looking into it" - a deeper problem remains.

There are, in essence, two types of judicial system. By design, ours is passive. With a few exceptions - imminent danger, counter-terrorism, organized crime and gang investigations - our system is supposed to wait for a crime to be committed before acting. Even the exceptions make us uneasy, as do "sting" operations.

The other type of judicial system is active. It seeks out wrongdoing and, more often than not, finds it ... or manufactures it. This system is also known as inquisitorial. Whenever the laws grow too numerous and complex for ordinary citizens to access and understand, and the pursuit of violators too profitable for lawyers or prosecutors, the inquisitorial system flourishes.

Our system is becoming more and more inquisitorial, as lawyers - who are also "officers of the court" - turn the innocent into victims for their own gain. The result is legal corruption.

Before this cancer spreads too far, we believe that attorneys found guilty of abuse of legal process should be disbarred and should pay back extorted money and costs to the innocent people they harassed. They should also pay punitive damages for the original reason such damages were created, to punish the guilty. It's time these bandits get a dose of their own medicine.

State governments and bar associations should act quickly to remove this cancer and to apply preventive measures, before the corruption spreads further. But don't hold your breath. Lawyers pursue you, me and our neighbors like bloodhounds - but nip like puppies against their brethren.

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Michael Arnold Glueck, M.D., is a multiple award winning writer who comments on medical- legal issues. Robert J. Cihak, M.D., is past president of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons. Both JWR contributors are Harvard trained diagnostic radiologists. Comment by clicking here.

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