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Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Guest blog: The human consequences of judicial decisions

By James B. Steele
Pulitzer prize-winning journalist James B. Steele, co-author with Donald Barlett of The Betrayal of the American Dream, had been scheduled to offer some context for the economic issues discussed in AFJ’s documentary Unequal Justice, at its Washington D.C. premiere.  Unfortunately, when we had to reschedule the premiere to tonight because of Hurricane Sandy, Steele was unable to join us.  But he believes the issues discussed in the documentary are so important that he sent us this guest blog.  There’s still time for you to register to attend the free screening tonight.  And Steele’s essay, below, serves as a great introduction for tonight’s program.
The inequality that has transformed the United States into a place eerily resembling the nation during the robber baron era didn’t just happen.

It’s the result of deliberate policies in taxes, trade and deregulation that have enabled the top one percent of Americans to take control of more wealth than the bottom 90 percent.
James B. Steele, right, with co-author Donald Barlett
The role of Congress, corporate America and various Administrations in implementing policies that have tilted the economic playing field against the best interests of average Americans is well established. What is not so well known is how the courts have contributed to this economic imbalance. Unequal Justice brilliantly shines a light on this neglected area and exposes the human consequences that judicial decisions have on the lives of millions of Americans.
In the research for our book The Betrayal of the American Dream,  we came across example after example of how the courts have stacked the deck against Americans. One of the most heart-rending cases was story of Joy Whitehouse, to whom we dedicated the book.
Joy and her late husband raised four children and gave them a solid upbringing on his salary as a long-haul truck driver. After he was killed in a highway crash caused in part by faulty maintenance of his truck, Joy expected to receive $598 every two weeks from the company in retirement. But the company reneged on the payment when it entered bankruptcy court and asked a judge to dismiss Joy’s claim. Ultimately the court awarded a few cents on the dollar to some creditors; Joy received nothing. Hobbled by ill health and unable to work, Joy was on her own.
On a visit to her modest mobile home outside Salt Lake City, she led me to a small shed in her backyard. Inside was a jumble of discarded aluminum cans. She had collected used soda, soup and vegetable cans alongside the roads in her neighborhood and from neighbors. Twice a month a friend drove her to a recycler who gave her around $30 each time.  When your only monthly income is $942 from Social Security, she said, the extra $60 comes in handy.

Remarkably, she wasn’t bitter. She didn’t decry her fate.  She just wanted what her husband had earned and which she as mother of their children was owed. After she was denied that, she did what so many hard-working Americans do: she tried to make the best of a situation that was not of her own making.

“You put your pride in your pocket and you learn to help yourself,” she told me. “I save cans.”

Joy was one of a kind, but we saw in her story what was happening to so many middle class Americans who’ve seen their economic security taken from them by Wall Street, Washington and the courts.  The United States, the ostensible land of opportunity, has turned its back on it's own people. Restoring balance in our economic system is crucial, so all may share in the hope, promise and prosperity of this nation.

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