Champions and Guardians of the Seventh Amendment
By: Benjamin S. Wagner, WAJ President
It is a tremendous honor and privilege to begin serving as President of Wisconsin’s trial lawyer association.
As trial lawyers, we empathize with people who need our help. When we see a vulnerable person in need, we instinctively commit to use our hearts, minds and the 7th amendment to achieve justice for them. As we know, the 7th Amendment guarantees a jury trial in civil cases. Together, with our state constitution, we declare that this right should be inviolate.
We are the champions and guardians of the Seventh Amendment. It is our most powerful tool and a pillar of our democracy.
We use this tool on behalf of our clients in the courtroom to empower juries to empathize with our clients to hold wrongdoers, whether a person or corporation, responsible for the harm they cause. We use it to regulate the conduct of the powerful to protect those who need our voice.
We cannot accept the false notion that the law is failing our clients.
We cannot accept the idea that juries do not, or cannot, empathize with our clients and follow the law.
Our capability to be successfully advocate for our clients in our civil justice system is evidenced by some of the great verdicts our members have achieved this past year. Most notably in 2016, we heard of victories in cases tried by Mike Laufenberg, Craig Christiansen, Ryan Hetzel, Rob Jaskulski, Ed Robinson, Mike Siddall, Ralph Tease, Jeff Pittman, Byron Conway, Ann Jacobs, Steve Botzau, Andrew Wier, Jackie Nuckels and so many others who are part of this organization.
I hope you will join me in congratulating Randy Rozek, who was bestowed the Robert L. Habush Trial Lawyer of the year Award. Randy had an exceptional verdict this past year. As many of you know, Randy’s award stems from an outstanding result in a tough case.
What steps must we take, however, considering the realities we face? It would be easy to back down. Backing down, however, would not serve our clients nor the system well. Not one of us entered this line of work because we shied away from tough battles.
First, we must continue to push back against attempts to define the fair value of our client’s cases. We must push back and challenge offers below fair value and force a jury to define the true value of a case.
Next, we must also try more cases, because simply put, it is healthy for the system and all who operate in it. Lawyers, Judges, and citizens all benefit from trial experience. As lawyers, we learn from every trial which makes us a better advocate for our existing and future clients. Citizens who serve on juries often enter the process irritated and inconvenienced, but then leave the process enlightened and fulfilled.
If we don’t continue to exercise the 7th Amendment right, our enemies of civil justice will take note and be re-enforced in the idea that their strategy to take civil justice out of the JURY’s hands is working. Year after year we have seen less and less jury trials.
The 7th Amendment is a powerful muscle that our Founding Fathers gave us, we must exercise it or it will atrophy. Let’s try to build on the victories and momentum we saw in 2016 and try more cases in 2017. And as a group, we must encourage the younger lawyers to be a leading part of this effort. I hope you will join me in offering congratulations to Peter Young, the recipient of our first ever Outstanding Young Trial Lawyer Award.
Beyond the courtroom, our mission is to help foster and support this civil justice system. We effectuate this mission in a few important ways.
First, we are a political association that is charged with the duty to lobby on behalf of our interests and our mission. It is not only our job to promote and support laws that help our clients and expand access to the system, but we are also responsible for stopping anti-justice legislation from becoming law.
We share a collective concern about the future health of our civil justice system and the potential uncertainty that lies ahead.
Our only option is to see this as an opportunity to evolve, adapt, and survive and in the political reality we are in.
In 2017, we will focus on being pragmatic and practical; and be neither partisan nor ideological, in our mission to preserve and protect our system.
We will focus on forging practical relationships with members from both parties to educate and persuade them about the sanctity of the 7th amendment. We hope, and we believe, that any politician who is intellectually honest should be receptive to this very constitutionalist concept.
We will do everything we can to mitigate and eliminate any threat to civil justice in 2017, including fighting and preventing any renewed effort to pass collateral source legislation and other anti-civil justice initiatives.
In the face of grave challenges, we need you and we need WAJ more than ever. We need our membership to use our empathy and our advocacy, to fight for the causes we embrace; and to fight for the vulnerable people in our society who need our help most.