Achieving Social Justice with Civil Law

Achieving Social Justice with Civil Law

Andrew Reid introduces a new perspective of how social justice can truly be achieved with gaining the right outcomes in civil litigation.  He is a child of the ‘60s, with roots in the counter-culture and social change that guide his practice today: as a legal warrior over the past 40 years, Andy has taken up the struggles of Native peoples and nations for liberation from colonial rule and exploitation; campaigned to protect the environment and the rights of nature and Mother Earth; stood with the Native, peace, environmental and spiritual communities against the military and weapons of mass destruction; pursued damages for many victims of police and prison abuse, and, among many other matters of great social impact, fought to give a progressive voice to mass gatherings of US citizens.

As you can gather from the impressive introduction, the following interview offers insights into the importance of civil law, and how Andy wishes to witness US law shift in the upcoming years.

Why is being an attorney specialising in civil litigation so important to you? You have been practising for over 40 years; can you expand on how you go about serving those who have been subjected to negligence?

I’ve handled quite a few criminal appeals, but find that civil litigation provides a better opportunity to accomplish social justice.  Criminal law generally benefits specific individuals who may have themselves engaged in injury to the public, victims of crimes who often are overlooked by social activists when campaigning for those who are abused by the American system of criminal justice.

Ultimately, corporations and governmental agencies and others that adopt ethical and socially and environmentally beneficial approaches, will discover that the long-term financial benefits outweigh the short-term financial rewards.

With civil law, a litigator is more in control of the issues, the parties, and the dialogue, so that it can be more effective in producing a broader and more focused result and have a greater social impact, while still providing the successful litigator with the financial reward necessary to sustain and continue the work.

For example, bringing toxic tort litigation against industries and corporations engaged in activities that harm or put at risk large sectors of the public, often has much more impact on discouraging such future harmful activity due to the hit on corporate profits, than government regulation, because the regulation and enforcement is often under the indirect control – or even direct control – of those very corporations and industries subject to regulation.  Suing bad cops or jailers who injure those who come in contact with the criminal justice system for damages, is more likely to result in fundamental policy changes than political pressure, because large damage awards significantly affect the budgets of law enforcement and corrections agencies.  Going after doctors, lawyers, and others for damages from their professional negligence or discrimination leads to the provision of better and more ethical services to the public.

Ultimately, corporations and governmental agencies and others that adopt ethical and socially and environmentally beneficial approaches, will discover that the long-term financial benefits outweigh the short-term financial rewards.

 

In the 1980s, you sued the United States over nuclear proliferation and won; can you share the challenges you overcame for this case? How did this change the way in which you handled your future cases?

Civil litigation can lead to dramatic social changes.  In the 1980s for example, the United States had plans to deploy the MX nuclear weapons system having some 1000 times the destructive power of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, Japan.

A very broad coalition of peace, anti-nuclear, Native, farm and ranch, environmental, and religious leaders and organisations successfully challenged the deployment and obtained an order stopping the deployment, a first within the peace movement.

In a precedent-setting decision, the appellate court held that President Reagan and the military could not hide behind arguments of national security and classified records to avoid compliance with environmental laws.  One of the claims we raised then was a precursor to the current litigation over the impacts of climate change, the responsibility for the destruction of the earth itself.

I find that law is built upon a spirit of justice and fairness that I use to guide all of my work and as a source of support when its seems the dynamics of power, legislation, and court rulings offer little else.

Moreover, what do you think is the key behind winning a case?

From my experience, the key to winning a high-profile case lies first in the merits and righteousness of your client’s claims, one’s own honesty and fairness, fearlessness, creative thought (I’ve found there’s almost always a way around a legal barrier), knowing the other side, and tenacity (commitment and hard work).

As I do not possess a particularly flamboyant personality or oratory skills, I have to make up for it in other ways.  Although I am well aware that our legal system often neglects the poor, unpopular, and people of colour, I find that law is built upon a spirit of justice and fairness that I use to guide all of my work and as a source of support when its seems the dynamics of power, legislation, and court rulings offer little else.

The United States may assert its “exceptionalism” in the face of it being an outlier in its refusal to sign or implement various human rights treaties, but it still reacts to global humiliation for its conduct.

As a member of the US Human Rights Network, what regulations do you think your jurisdiction needs to address, for the betterment of society?

Domestic law in the United States offers little to those of us who are active practitioners and teachers of human (and earth) rights law.  Although the United States persistently avoids the obvious, America is a well-known major human rights abuser both domestically and globally.  However, I have found that all is not lost.  Domestic human rights organisations, like the US HRN, can have an impact by exposing such abuses and the isolation of the United States within the international community of nations.  I believe that human rights arguments have led to domestic changes, for example, in US practices of torture, the death penalty, corporate social responsibility, gender discrimination, and, to a limited extent, climate change responses.  The United States may assert its “exceptionalism” in the face of it being an outlier in its refusal to sign or implement various human rights treaties, but it still reacts to global humiliation for its conduct.

 

Do you expect any changes in law in the upcoming years? Are there any influences which may encourage a paradigm shift?

I must say that one of the most unexpected and beneficial rewards I have received from my decades of law practice came from the least among us, my indigenous sisters and brothers.  I initially became involved in their struggles out of outrage over their history of hundreds of years of colonial oppression, ethnocide, and genocide.  Despite having been the first nations and occupiers of the Americas, they suffer from extreme poverty and cultural devastation under the continuing rule of the United States as a successor colonial power.  Yet, they have always treated me, someone from the privileged race and an agent of the law that has been used to destroy them, with great warmth, respect, and acceptance.  They have a spirituality and a seamless connection with their ancestors and future generations and with nature and mother earth that sustains them and that I have been able to experience in a small way.

They have their own “laws”, natural law, as reflections of their history, culture, and spirituality.  As Western culture and laws drive us towards a global climate disaster and, according to some scientists, possible human extinction, I and many others are looking to our indigenous family for wisdom in developing other ways that might lead us to a sustainable future in harmony with our non-human living and non-living relatives that occupy the earth with us.  I do not consider myself a religious person; but, my indigenous relations have convinced me that the one element Western culture and its laws lack is a connection to the natural world, to all the circumstances of our own existence, that compels us to seek balance and harmony and respect if just for the survival of our own species, our children and grandchildren.

But, with the help of our indigenous relations and our other relatives from the non-human natural world, we just might over the next few generations transform, embrace the paradigm shift, in a way that would ensure our children’s survival.

In many ways, the practice of law in America is the antithesis of an indigenous approach to resolving disputes and seeking fairness justice.  I’ve tried to incorporate in my practice some of the wisdom from my indigenous relations, but it has been difficult.  There are some openings in designing remedies, in settlement of claims which include more than money, remedial policy changes, in non-adversarial solutions to domestic relations disputes, in corporate social responsibility, and even in government regulation.

IMF and World Bank regulations, for example, now as part of funding development may include contract provisions for the protection of the environment and the communities hosting the development.  Environmental law is beginning to trend more towards consideration of ecosystems and broader, even global, considerations.  There is a growing movement within America for grassroots democracy, community empowerment, and decentralization of authority.  It is slow and incremental.  But, with the help of our indigenous relations and our other relatives from the non-human natural world, we just might over the next few generations transform, embrace the paradigm shift, in a way that would ensure our children’s survival.  “Aho mitakuye oyasin” – All my relations.

 

Andrew B. Reid, JD, LLM
Springer & Steinberg, PC
1600 Broadway, Suite 1200
Denver, Colorado 80202
Tel: 303.861.2800
lawyerreid@gmail.com

Andrew (“Andy”) Reid is a non-conventional senior counsel with a mid-sized, Denver, Colorado, law firm serving primarily high-profile clients.  He is an activist who views the law as potentially oppressive when used by the wealthy and powerful or, if taken on with great expertise and skill, as an effective tool for social liberation and justice.  His work has resulted on over 60 often precedent-setting published opinions and has appeared in a large number of books, including law school textbooks, and other publications. Andy is an adjunct professor at the University of Denver Strum College of Law and a frequent presenter on matters of social justice.