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Opinion

Remembering, and Protecting, Our Essential Rights


Remember, and Protecting, Our Essential Rights

 Edward H. Gersowitz, the author


For most of us, the month of July means fireworks, barbeques, and a long weekend to kick off the summer. But we should also spend time this month reflecting on the fact that we live in a country founded on the fabric of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. The freedoms we have, and the individual rights we exercise, are a direct result of these key documents.

Several states, including New York, were reluctant to approve the Constitution unless it was amended to protect basic civil rights. The adoption of the Bill of Rights answered those concerns. One of these crucial rights, laid out in the Seventh Amendment, ensures accountability and justice by guaranteeing the right to a jury of one’s peers in civil cases:

“In suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise reexamined in any court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.”

Clearly, the founders of our country knew the importance of the right to bring a claim for civil justice.

Whether it is removing lead from children’s toys and candy; forcing Detroit to finally build safer cars; keeping our air and water clean; protecting against discrimination based on age, sex, race, and sexual orientation; or making sure potentially harmful medicines are properly labeled, the right of victims to a court of law has led to safety improvements that have saved tens of thousands of lives.

But there are those who want to take these rights away.

Corporations and large institutions -- and their lobbyists -- often attempt to bar the courtroom door to those they harm. Forcing consumers into private arbitration proceedings rather than the publicly-owned court system or denying them the right to bring a claim simply because they did not find out about their own injury in time to meet a deadline are tactics they use to deny people justice.

While corporations and institutions claim that lawsuits hurt their bottom line, the reality is that limiting the right to a jury trial can take away a powerful incentive for safety. It allows those who produce dangerous products, provide negligent healthcare, or otherwise harm people through carelessness to escape responsibility for the consequences."

The New York State Trial Lawyers Association works to strengthen America’s civil justice system to ensure that it provides an even playing field for all.

Our role as lawyers is embedded into the foundation of the Constitution. We are honored with the duty and immense responsibility of representing men, women, children, and families who have been wronged. And we have the privilege of bringing about major change and help to individuals when they have nowhere else to turn.

The rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are central to our country’s success. And those rights would mean nothing if our right to the courtroom and the ability to exercise our rights without fear and intimidation didn’t exist. The courts protect our independence. And when changes and transformations are introduced to society, the courts are there to ensure balance and equality.

As the fireworks fade after this July 4th, we should all remain thankful for our rights, including the Seventh Amendment, and remember that when it comes to the distribution of those rights and civil liberties, there should be no advantages or disadvantages. The right to a jury trial in civil cases is one of the most important legacies to which we, as Americans, are entitled. We should not squander it.

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Edward H. Gersowitz took over as President of the New York State Trial Lawyers Association on July 1. He is the first openly LGBT president of a state trial lawyers association in the U.S. and a staunch fighter for civil rights. On Twitter at @NYSTLA.

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