It is not often that a speech calling for the establishment of a national public interest law firm, driven by experienced litigators, goes from words to action, from speech to action.
That is exactly what happened after my June 1980 address to the Michigan Trial Lawyers Association. I spoke of a gap in experimental practice that needs to be closed. There was an urgent need to file lawsuits against the many corporate abuses, which included failure to enforce regulatory laws. Without the prospect of a contingency fee upon successful completion, trial attorneys were unlikely to take on these uncertain or structural reform cases on behalf of renters, farm workers, or atrocious prison conditions.
I’ve noted the corporate assault on “the biosphere, personal injury law from trauma to toxins.” The corporate lobby blocked proposed legislation to strengthen consumer class action rights, delved deeper into unscrupulous corporate welfare payments, and funded corporatist politicians. To challenge these damaging corporate power plays, I proposed a full-time core of public interest attorneys supported by a sabbatical program for trial attorneys who wished to take a year off from their regular practice and come to Washington, DC to promote justice and to refresh yourself.
It turned out that some leading trial lawyers – Scottie Baldwin, JD Lee, Bill Colson and Dean Robb – were unhappy with the slow pace of the American Trial Lawyers Association (ATLA), then controlled by a small clique of complacent members. They took this proposal to the ATLA Congress and called a meeting of like-minded attorneys. With the determined support of Joan B. Claybrook, who was with Public Citizen, the non-profit Trial Lawyers for Public Justice (TLPJ) was formed.
Over the next forty years, TLPJ was renamed public justice (PJ) in 2007 has shown that as long as the peoples’ advocates are on the field of action, there are chances for broad judicial success.
Public justice has taken on a wide range of cases, from tackling mountain deforestation and freshwater poisoning from West Virginia’s coal industry, to toxic contamination of industrial agriculture, to ensuring Title IX is enforced to throw the doors wide open to women who participate in intercollegiate athletics.
Today, led by Paul Bland, public justice celebrates its fortieth anniversary. The firm has an annual budget of $7 million (equivalent to about three and a half weeks’ salary for tight-fisted Apple CEO Tim Cook), 23 people on its legal team, and 46 employees in total.
Watch The public judiciary Case file (see: https://www.publicjustice.net/what-we-do/access-to-justice/). They have challenged court secrecy, combated compulsory arbitration and federal anticipation of good state law and the weakening of class action lawsuits. Students facing harassment and discrimination have found an advocate in public justice, as have consumers who have been swindled in so many ways by sneaky commercial thieves.
is special The public judiciary against what it calls the “Debtors Prison Project”. Here, governments seek to make money by collecting fees from indicted criminals who keep them trapped in cycles of poverty, with PJ arguing that “no one should lose their liberty because they lack the means to pay a fine”.
This fills a great vacuum public justice in his Worker Justice Project.. The huge agribusiness, Public Justice claims with ample evidence, “has always capitalized on the exploitation of workers since its beginnings in plantation agriculture, which relied on the forced labor of enslaved Africans. Today, meat packers face some of the most brutal working conditions on the job market.”
When Covid-19 viruses came to America, public justice defended food system workers who were given no protection and care, and hence their industrial plants “quickly became epicenters of outbreaks.”
Paul Bland and his colleagues have joined forces with other public interest groups on some cases, including On the way to justice and the Heartland Center for Jobs and Freedom.
In today’s right-wing, corporatist justice system, public justice still wins cases, deters wrongdoing because corporations know they’re on the alert, and even increases the visibility of problems when they lose.
Like any forty-year-old institution, it must remain vigilant not to become too sedentary and too risk-averse, and instead continue to be a pioneering organization, breaking new ground with bold causes of action like there’s no tomorrow. Do you hear that younger lawyers? Your job is to keep your unique law firm as fresh as a cool mountain breeze caressing a bubbling mountain stream. For more information, visit the Public Justice website: https://www.publicjustice.net/.