Earlier this month, we lost a true captain of justice, retired Washington Supreme Court Justice Robert Utter, who died at age 84. I call him a “captain” because one of his passions was sailing. Utter served as chief justice of the Supreme Court from 1979 to 1981. That period was when Washington State’s new death penalty legislation was tested in both the high court and the federal courts.
Paul Stritmatter, invited to speak this Wednesday in honor of the 25th anniversary of Sofie v. Fibreboard, will pay homage to this great figure in his speech. Utter authored the Sofie decision, which removed the cap on damages for personal injury plaintiffs, altering the landscape of tort law in this state.
Utter was a revered jurist for his constitutional analysis, for his high moral standards, and for his empathy of the plight of those less fortunate. Beyond our state and country, he traveled to the far reaches of the globe and helped no less than 20 countries to implement justice systems and to adopt meaningful constitutions.
In 1992, the Dali Lama’s legal adviser called Utter to seek advice about how to draft the criminal law code for the Tibetan Government in Exile. Utter’s focus was on rehabilitation and dispute resolution.
In 1995, Utter resigned over what he perceived as the court’s failure by the court to adequately consider proportionality in weighing capital sentences. During the 1990’s, he also taught Constitutional Law at my alma mater, formerly the University of Puget Sound Law School (now Seattle University School of Law).
In 2003, in recognition of his work with judges in emerging democracies, Utter received the CEELI Volunteers Award from the American Bar Association. This award was one of the most meaningful awards for Utter, who explained, “It’s been a great privilege. The greatest has been to see the dedication of people around the world under incredible circumstances working to develop the rule of law in their own countries.” About a poll taken in Haiti in 2011, Utter wrote: “In a country with massive unemployment, brutality, corruption, poverty and a pervading sense of hopelessness, the primary wish was for the availability of justice for all and for a non-corrupt court system… The fulfillment of this universal longing for justice and access to a fair judicial system does not occur without an investment of time, energy, commitment and courage.”
Indeed, Justice Utter invested a lifetime of energy, commitment and courage in the furtherance of justice. We honor this remarkable jurist.
As consumers, we are constantly asked to sign agreements with our cell phone provider, a credit card company, a cable company, an ecommerce merchant, etc. Before signing these agreements, we are typically asked to agree to the terms and conditions of the agreement. These contracts of adhesion now have standard forced arbitration clauses. So what? Well, watch this brief documentary, which will open your eyes to how corporations are warping the justice system against consumers with forced arbitration.
As Paul Bland, Executive Director of Public Justice explains in the documentary’s companion article, forced arbitration has thwarted the justice system in our country. Replacing the public justice system that our founding fathers developed and envisioned, consumers are now thrust into a for-profit system rigged in favor of corporations. As I wrote in a previous blog post, AMEX v. Italian Colors was a devastating decision, which now allows the Federal Arbitration Act to override virtually any other statute. Merchants like the small town restaurant owner of Italian Colors are bound to forced arbitration clauses:
Before this decision, SCOTUS said that courts should only enforce arbitration clauses where a party could “effectively vindicate its statutory rights.” However, with American Express v. Italian Colors, a majority (composed of the five conservative justices) held that the arbitration clauses are enforceable even if doing so makes it impossible for a plaintiff to actually vindicate its statutory rights.*
*Excerpt from blog post July 2013 blog post.
Country’s largest public interest law firm elects SKW partner, Brad J. Moore to serve as President Elect
Brad has a busy year ahead of him as he will work closely with President Esther Berezovsky and he will also serve on the ad hoc committee to look at PJ’s long range planning and organizational issues.
PJ is engaged on a number of legal fronts to protect consumers and the environment and to hold powerful entities accountable for wrongdoing.
Brad’s most recent work with PJ includes fighting for the Yakima Valley residents’ health and safety. Because of a cluster of industrial dairies’ mismanagement of solid waste, a recent EPA report revealed that Yakima Valley’s drinking water had nitrate levels above federal drinking water standards, posing a serious danger to more than 24,000 residents. (Nitrates can cause severe health problems such as blue baby syndrome, several forms of cancer, autoimmune system dysfunction, and reproductive problems.) The dairies named in PJ’s lawsuits filed in February 2013 were subjects of EPA’s study.
Just last month, a federal judge in Washington denied the defendants’ motion to dismiss, so the lawsuits are proceeding to trial.
We at SKW are really proud of Brad, of his work with PJ, and of PJ’s ongoing efforts to champion justice for consumers and the environment.