February 2016 Bar Bulletin
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Not Much Faith in the Legal System

By Marc Lampson: Public Services Attorney

 

Q. Do you believe people like you have the ability to use the courts
to enforce your legal rights or to protect yourself or your family?

√ Not at all or rarely.

So said more than 40 percent of those low-income people in Washington who were recently asked. Another 25.1 percent said that only “some of the time” would the court system protect or defend them. By my interpretation then, more than 65 percent of the low-income people surveyed showed little faith in the court system.1

The broader civil justice system fared little better. When asked if that system could help solve important problems, overall 26.7 percent of the same folks said “not at all or rarely,” and 31.9 percent said only “some of the time.” So, a total of 58.6 percent showed, as I see it, a similar lack of faith in the civil justice system. By group, 48.4 percent of whites answered the question with either “not at all,” “rarely,” or “some of the time;” 60.4 percent of non-whites answered in the same three ways; and 64.2 percent of African-Americans said the same.2

Looking Back

Historically, of course, this lack of faith in the legal system had much objective justification for low-income people and people of color in particular. For Native Americans, there was genocide, theft of much of the continent and its resources, and the forced relocation to reservations — most of which was done “under color of the law.” The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which snatched all of the Southwest and California from Mexico, has stood as at least an ambivalent introduction to the U.S. legal system for some Hispanic-Americans.

For Asians and Asian-Americans, the legal system addressed them with both federal and state acts, among others: the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (banning “Chinese laborers” from entering the U.S. and excluding those Chinese already here from citizenship); the Immigration Act of 1924 (which included the National Origins Act and the Asian Exclusion Act that collectively restricted immigration from southern and eastern Europe and Africa, and completely banned the immigration of Arabs and Asians); and what were known as “Alien Land Laws” (particularly in California and Washington, that effectively excluded Asians from owning property).

As early as 1889 in Washington, Article 2, Section 33 of the Washington State Constitution prohibited “aliens” from owning land, and since the Chinese were precluded from becoming citizens, and so by definition were perpetual “aliens,” they were precluded from owning land as well.

Thirty years later, Washington’s Alien Land Law of 1921 went even further by taking away from the Japanese not only the right to own, but also the right to lease or rent land. This long history of legal exclusion was capped off in 1942 with Executive Order 9066 that resulted in snatching what little land and possessions the Japanese-Americans had left and their imprisonment in remote “camps” surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards.

African-Americans, however, may be the legal system’s greatest victims, its staunchest opponents and mightiest heroes. From the 1600s on the sanctity of private property, free trade, the free market and freedom of contract were the economic and legal foundations of oppression. Starting with a legal system that viewed Africans as “chattel,” as things, and a Constitution that viewed them as “three-fifths” of a human, there followed centuries of abuse through the law: Black Codes; the Dred Scott decision; Jim Crow laws; convict leasing; peonage contracts; sharecropping; state’s rights; poll taxes; Plessy v. Ferguson; “separate but equal;” redlining; restrictive covenants; and more.

But during those same centuries there also arose a legacy of revolt and social change, from the Stono Rebellion in South Carolina in 1739 and John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, to the heroes and martyrs of the Civil Rights Movement and the eventual election of an African-American to the presidency. Yet, vestiges of centuries of oppression under the law remain and may partly explain why more than 60 percent of low-income people of color in Washington have little or no faith in the legal system.

Debt-collection Lawsuits

“If you are black, you’re far ... more likely to be sued over a debt, and more likely to land in jail because of a parking ticket.”3 This is due in part to wealth inequality between white and black people, but also due to the racism that was partly the cause of the wealth gap.

This racial wealth gap is attributable in part in modern times to the housing boom after World War II, which generated significant wealth for white families, but not for black families, because the federal government — the “law” — blocked home loans to black Americans, shutting them out of from the wealth generated by home ownership.4


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