Health

Tweets Reveal the Truth About a Billionaire Trump Supporter's Comments on the Legal System

October 31st 2016

By:
Danielle DeCourcey

On Monday, tech billionaire Peter Thiel made a controversial comment about the legal system, but it points to an unfortunate reality about justice in the U.S.: money really matters. While campaigning for Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, Thiel said that "single digit millionaires" have no voice in the legal system.

Thiel was speaking at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., when someone asked him about his infamous feud with the now- efunct website Gawker and his financing of the lawsuit that ultimately led to its closure.

Thiel gave at least $10 million to support former wrestler Hulk Hogan's invasion of privacy lawsuit, according to the Intercept. The lawsuit forced the Gawker Media flagship site Gawker.com to close; the other Gawker Media properties were sold to Univision and are now known as Gizmodo Media. Thiel gave a surprising explanation for his financial support in the case.

“If you’re a single-digit millionaire like Hulk Hogan, you have no effective access to our legal system,” he said at the National Press Club. “It costs too much. This was the modus operandi of Gawker in large part it was to go after people who had no chance of fighting back."

It's true that it can be very expensive for an individual to fight a legal battle with a company. However, Twitter users quickly pointed out the absurdity in Thiel's comments: Millionaires are not helpless, and they often have more power than other Americans in the legal system.

There are two branches of the court system and poor people are at a disadvantage in both.

Criminal cases are crimes against the state or federal government and the government prosecutes them. If a defendant is found guilty, criminal cases can result in fines or incarceration.

Civil cases are usually lawsuits between private parties, like Hogan's case against Gawker. However, local, state, and federal governments can bring civil cases to court as well. In a civil case, someone is alleging that someone else has failed to carry out a legal duty. When a lawsuit is won it usually results in money.

The Civil Court System.

Lawsuits can be very expensive stretching into the thousands of dollars. Car accident cases can cost thousands of dollars, according to 2013 report on attorney billing estimates by the Court Statistics Project. Cases that are resolved shortly can cost less than $1,000 but cases that go to trial can balloon up to $109,000.

Attorney and expert witness fees by litigation stage.

Considering these figures, it's possible that low-income Americans may avoid pursuing a lawsuit altogether, even if they have a strong case.

"Based on these estimates, it becomes easy to see how litigation costs might affect a litigant’s access to the civil justice system," wrote the report's authors. "Few litigants would be willing to risk incurring such costs unless the expected return — damages awarded for plaintiffs or damages avoided for defendants – greatly exceed those costs."

The Criminal Justice System.

Four tweets from Fordham Law School professor John Pfaff reveal who is truly disadvantaged in the criminal justice system: poor people who have to use public defenders. Thiel was speaking about a civil lawsuit, which does not entitle someone to a public defender, but 80 percent of people charged with felonies in the criminal legal system qualify to receive a public representation, according to the Guardian. Essentially Americans have the right to legal counsel, and if someone can't afford an attorney, the government must provide a public defender. The funding for public defenders comes from indigent defense budgets, these are budgets to get poor people an adequate legal defense.

Pfaff tweeted that many single digit millionaires have more money than some states' entire indigent defense budget.

Pfaff also tweeted that the U.S. spends relatively little on indigent defense although most people in the legal system qualify for a public defender.

He also directly called on Thiel and Amazon billionaire Jeff Besoz to contribute to indigent defense funding.

The 1963 U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Gideon vs. Wainwright said that the Sixth Amendment protects the right to legal counsel as a part of a fair trial.

In the decision, Justice Hugo Black wrote that "reason and reflection require us to recognize that in our adversary system of criminal justice, any person haled into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him.”

However even when someone is granted a public defender, they could be at a disadvantage.

A 2007 report (the most recent one available) from the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that county-based public defender offices across the country were carrying an average case load that exceeded more than each attorney could handle. Only about one in four county-based public defenders' offices reported having enough public defenders to "handle the incoming caseload." The BJS reported that many offices also lacked supporting staff like paralegals, investigators, indigency screeners, and clerical staff.

ATTN: spoke to Jo-Ann Wallace, the CEO and president of the National Legal Aid Defender Association.

Wallace said that bad legal representation for poor people is often tied to a lack of funding and resources.

"Its often and most frequently tied to funding," she said. "If a public defense organization doesn't have enough lawyers or enough professional staff or access to experts, that can lead to inadequate representation."

Wallace said that the integrity of the entire criminal justice system is tied to proper legal representation for poor people. She said that the strain on public defenders results in excessive plea bargaining.

"In many places across the country, people plead guilty and end up with a conviction without ever talking to a lawyer," she said. The strain of the legal process is too great for low-income Americans and they take a deal, regardless of their actual guilt.

"People who sit in jail, there is pressure to get out rather than wait for council to be appointed and in many instances the pressure is great to plead guilty," said Wallace. "Even if it's for a minor offense they don't realize that a guilty plea can have life altering consequences, in terms of the consequences of a conviction."

Citing the media attention on police shootings and mass incarceration, Wallace said that this is an important time to focus on legal representation for poor people.

"You know, especially right now where there's a real lack of confidence in the criminal justice system because of what people are seeing on their TVs and videos, these issues are a real concern," she said. "The need to invest in effective public defense has never been more important."

The need for adequate legal representation is something all Americans can understand, according to Wallace.

"Any of us would want, if it was our mother, our father, our son, our daughter, we would want each person to have access to counsel with the resources and the training to represent them effectively."

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