Monday, February 2, 2009

It may be the law – but is it just and do our judges care?
by E. Wycliff Orr
Georgia Online News Service

As the economy seems to be collapsing around us, where are the courts in Georgia? How will they rule on cases that will inevitably be spawned by the hard economic times: foreclosures, firings, plant closings, repossessions.

More than the public realizes, courts have powers, written and unwritten, to craft practical win-win solutions, and to mitigate the plight of those standing before the bar of justice. Much of this comes down simply to the judge's attitude, and to whether or not judges are willing to exercise those powers, as opposed to simply processing the case, rendering judgment, and clearing the docket. Although they have neither the time nor resources to be "nannies" in every case, with a little creativity and compassion, judges can often relieve the law of some of its inherent severity.

"Who gave you orders?" was the plea of the insolvent farmer being evicted from his land in John Steinbeck's depression-era The Grapes of Wrath. Unable to learn who has ordered his eviction, he decried the impersonal, inevitable force of law. That question may be upon us again. But just because, as Thoreau noted, "law never made men a whit more just," doesn't mean it shouldn't or can't be just.

Historically, Georgia's courts have been largely conservative, to put it mildly. While courts in many other states have been more willing to craft creative judicial solutions to the harsh application of strict laws and regulations imposed by legislatures, agencies and governors, our courts have traditionally been hesitant to do so. Forsaking the power the people have placed in them, our courts have tended to defer to the other branches. Our courts often choose to ignore the fact that law is often not so much rigid rules as it is loose principles around which we organize our biases.

Take as an example our courts' response to employment terminations. Although the origin of the so-called "employment at will" doctrine was created by a court ruling in the late 1800s, our courts have allowed an innocuous statute that codified that ruling to become an ironclad rule that gives broad protection to firings no matter how unfair. Hard times like these provide excellent cover for discharges that are in reality based on other unjust motives. Will our courts continue their habit of passing the buck on such injustices, and excusing such claims of judicial impotence by protesting that the only answer lies in the legislature's changing the statute which came from the courts themselves?

Or, in criminal cases, will our courts significantly distinguish, for example, those who steal a loaf of bread for their hungry children from those who steal on a larger scale and for other more sinister motives? As the poet and journalist Anatole France famously asked more than a century ago, will our society, through its judges, delude itself with false even-handedness by the excuse that "the law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread" ? Or, as the legendary criminal lawyer Clarence Darrow lamented long ago, will petty crimes draw substantial prison sentences while gargantuan white collar crimes that victimize millions go unprosecuted or insufficiently punished? If the recent Congressional response to the financial straits of ordinary Americans as compared to Wall Street--- or the indifference of the Georgia General Assembly and governor to date to the economic plight of ordinary Georgians -- are any indicator, one would doubt judicial prospects for "equal justice under law."

More than the public realizes, court decisions are just that - decisions - based on judges' attitudes engendered significantly by what they think the voting public expects and will allow and tolerate. So the kinds of courts we will have - and the manner in which those courts will deal with the especially hard choices that come before them in times such as these -- will depend in large measure on our citizens, and the extent to which they are willing to be heard. They must be heard not just by the other branches of government, but by judges themselves. In the end, as with other matters in a democracy, any fault in our courts' response to these times will, to paraphrase Shakespeare, lie not only in those courts, but in ourselves as well.

E. Wycliff Orr, is an attorney and former state representative in Gainesville.   [full bio]


Editor's note: Hello, Georgia. The Georgia Online News Service (GONSO) is in its second full week of distribution. More than 30 of the top journalists are busy creating content that's important and entertaining for all Georgians. Newspapers and broadcasters throughout the state are receiving complimentary editions of GONSO. We hope you read our work, use it and tell us what you think.

Today's offerings touch on a series of controversial issues in Georgia.

Veteran roaming reporter Bill Osinski goes to Richland, a town south of Columbus. There he tells us about a failed water system – don't drink what comes out of the tap, please! – and the failed politics that led to the crisis.

Two guest writers – both lawyers – weigh in on some critical problems. E. Wycliff Orr laments the injustice in the justice system, and notes that in this period of economic downturn, we need legal opinions from judges that tilt the balance toward common folk. And, J. Randolph Evans says the current crisis with contaminated peanut products, which has given all of Georgia a black eye, can be blamed on lax enforcement by Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin.

Finally, we have a real treat. Debuting today is the first column by best-selling author and humorist Hollis Gillespie. Don't expect anything less than a stimulating, sometimes infuriating, read from Gillespie. I knew her for years when she was the brightest marquee writer at Creative Loafing, and I've got to tell you, she's a killer. Now she's writing for GONSO. What place in Georgia truly deserves to have Gillespie drop in? The state Capitol, of course, and in today's column she talks about the brisk sales of pain-killers at the Gold Dome.

– John F. Sugg, Executive Editor


Today's GONSO

Peanut catastrophe makes clear one thing: Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin's retirement is long overdue

by J. Randolph Evans
In 1969, Georgia's current Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin took office. Since then, Commissioner Irvin has been reelected nine times and is serving his tenth term. Commissioner Irvin has been a relatively popular Agriculture Commissioner, especially among those whose businesses he impacts the most. Indeed, Irvin has accumulated one of the largest campaign war chests in Georgia history - so large that he has undisclosed investments that rival the wealthiest Georgians.

Unfortunately, all this popularity has not meant much for the protection of Georgians, and now Americans, from contaminated food generated in processing facilities in Georgia. There is no better illustration of that responsibility than the salmonella contamination of peanut butter from the Peanut Corporation of America processing plant in Blakely, Georgia. The consequences arising from the shipment of contaminated peanut products have been serious. More than 500 people nationwide have gotten sick and eight people have died.

Full Story

Pain Relief at the Capitol

by Hollis Gillespie
It looks like Tylenol is the pain reliever of choice in the Georgia Capitol, though the snack kiosk across from Gov. Sonny Purdue's office also offers Advil, Motrin and a half dozen other options. Rex, who is the cashier – and Rex is not his real name, his real name is very clearly printed on his Georgia state employee badge, but you will have to visit him to see it – has been working at the kiosk for five years now, and you can consider him the resident expert on pain-reliever options at the Capitol.

"I got to restock them Tylenols," he says. "They really like the Tylenols."

Full Story

Bitter Tea In Richland: Town's water contamination highlights infrastructure problems statewide

by Bill Osinski
You don't need a visa to go to Richland, Ga.

But anyone heading for this Stewart County town a few miles south of Columbus should heed some third-world travel advice: DON'T DRINK THE WATER!

Basically, the city's water lines have become choked with asbestos contamination. It's gotten so bad that the city must charge a flat rate to all its customers, because many individual water meters around town have become so thickly clogged that they cannot be read anymore.

The situation is getting resolved; about 80 percent of the city's water lines will be replaced sometime this year. Still, the remaining pipes are also bad and Richland is already so in debt from the first round of replacements that it can't afford what remains to be done.

Full Story

It may be the law – but is it just and do our judges care?

by E. Wycliff Orr
As the economy seems to be collapsing around us, where are the courts in Georgia? How will they rule on cases that will inevitably be spawned by the hard economic times: foreclosures, firings, plant closings, repossessions.

More than the public realizes, courts have powers, written and unwritten, to craft practical win-win solutions, and to mitigate the plight of those standing before the bar of justice. Much of this comes down simply to the judge's attitude, and to whether or not judges are willing to exercise those powers, as opposed to simply processing the case, rendering judgment, and clearing the docket. Although they have neither the time nor resources to be "nannies" in every case, with a little creativity and compassion, judges can often relieve the law of some of its inherent severity.

Full Story

Tomorrow's Budget
When business has failed so utterly, it isn't "socialism" for government to set things right
by John Sugg
Economic downturn could produce a level playing field for baseball
by Paul Kaplan
Perdue should not hike the cost of home ownership or medical care
by Sam Olens
Georgia Power's Nuke-Sized Nightmare
by Lyle Harris

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