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Posted October 30: 

Regarding your item on the lawsuits by John Denver's survivors (Oct. 4): my will enjoins my estate or survivors for suing any non-governmental entity or any individual not directly responsible for my death. I had a hell of a time finding a lawyer to draft THAT clause. -- Kevin O'Brien, Lynn, Mass.

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A true story: a group of youngsters was visiting the Fort Sam Houston Museum.  A museum staff member was explaining the symbolism used in Army insignia to identify military organizations by showing the youngsters examples of shoulder patches.  The staff member would hold up a shoulder patch and ask them what kind of unit they thought it signified. After a few samples, she held up a shoulder patch with a snake and a dagger on it.  "What kind of unit would this be?" she asked.  Almost immediately, one youngster piped up, "Lawyers!" -- John Manguso, Director, Fort Sam Houston Museum, San Antonio, Tex.

Posted October 26: 

I recently read your 1993 article "It Didn't Start With Dateline NBC" in which you documented how "60 Minutes" had run footage that supposedly showed the propensity of Jeeps to roll over, but which had actually been rigged to make that happen.   So it gave me a sense of deja vu to watch Dateline NBC on October 24 trying to stir up more furor against SUVs with a story about their susceptibility to rollover accidents.  They showed some old footage of a Jeep rolling over under seemingly ordinary conditions.  Do you know whether it was the same footage you criticized in your article? -- Park Burrets, Memphis, Tenn.  [No, I don't know whether it was the same, and missed the latest Dateline.  Maybe other readers can help out -- ed.]

Posted October 19: 

The cover story of the November issue of Harper's is a 15-page transcript of a discussion among four plaintiff's lawyers -- Willie Gary, Alexander Pires, Richard Scruggs, and Dennis Sweet -- about how to file a class-action suit for black reparations.  It's difficult to describe.  For example, Scruggs spins out a due process claim against the Federal government -- against Congress, really -- based on a "theory" of a "continuing constitutional violation" of blacks' civil rights, explaining: "The government is not doing its duty.  So, in essence, it's a malpractice case or a mandamus case." There are other mystifying "theories" contained in the article, too many to note here.  Res ipsa loquitur.  The article ends with an "editor's note" to the effect that Charles Ogletree (a professor at Harvard Law School) and lawyers from Johnnie Cochran's firm have contacted the four attorneys named above to form a "working group" with the "intention" of filing "a reparations lawsuit for the injustice of slavery and its aftermath against the government of the United States." -- Mike DeBow, Cumberland School of Law, Samford University (webpage)

Posted October 5: 

Arguing with sketchy anecdotes isn't normally a fruitful pursuit or a useful way to make policy.  David Rubin (Oct. 3) has not given us enough facts to guess at whether the outcome was just or fair in the case he describes.   I think we could readily find quite a few clients who felt injustly treated despite extensive lawyering and lengthy court proceedings.

There is no doubt that small claims courts need more funding, including money to hire court personnel and purchase technology to better assist litigants and make the process fair and user-friendly for all parties.  I hope that concerned attorneys like Mr. Rubin will pressure their legislatures to fully fund projects like California's innovative Small Claims Advisor Program, which is described in an article entitled "Small Claims Reform: A Means of Expanding Access to the American Civil Justice System," by James C. Turner and Joyce A. McGee.  A relevant portion: 

Californiaís innovative Small Claims Legal Advisor Program requires each county to provide individual assistance and free advice to small claims litigants. This program employs advisors who help people through the small claims process by helping them prepare for trial, providing them with informational materials, referring them to other appropriate agencies and programs (particularly mediation programs, if available), and by acting as their guides and teachers. The California Small Claims Legal Advisor Program was established by law and is funded from small claims filing fees. While this program does work to increase accessibility, it has experienced some difficulty in meeting an increasing caseload for small claims courts. Similarly, this promising program, which has proved to be extremely helpful to people coming through the small claims process, has suffered from under funding and under staffing in many locations.
The legal profession seems understandably content to keep small claims courts in a low-tech and low-budget judicial ghetto.   A 1991 study by the American Bar Association found that self-represented clients were more likely to be satisfied with the judicial system than those using attorneys. With expanded monetary jurisdiction, full funding, and the intelligent use of modern technology, small claims courts can offer timely justice and meaningful access for millions of Americans who are now closed out of the judicial system. -- David Giacalone, columnist, PrairieLaw

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Attorney David Rubin (Oct. 3) is right to complain about a capricious decision by a small claims court judge.  But donít throw the baby out with the bathwater; the problem in this case is with the judge, not the entire small claims system. Not everyone can afford to hire an attorney to protect his interests.  For many thousands of individuals and small businesses, the small claims system is the only way to obtain justice when they have been wronged.  The fact that the small claims system does not operate perfectly in every instance should be viewed as a reason to improve it, not to abolish it.

Furthermore, judges can make arbitrary case-deciding rulings at any level, not just in small claims court.  Certainly, the expedited procedure of small claims court is preferable to hiring an attorney at a cost of several thousand dollars and waiting for years before a judge makes a decision in a case with no guarantee that the longer procedure will result in a decision any less inane than the one related by Mr. Rubin.  In either case, of course, the victim of this incompetence has the right to appeal.  The difference is that the party who has taken the small claims route will get its appeal sooner than the party who goes through the full trial procedure, and that the former party will not spend more money on pursuing the case than it expects to receive as a judgment. -- Thomas Gordon, Associate Counsel, HALT, Washington, D.C.

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