In recent months, we've seen seemingly endless arguments over the Supreme Court. But as I watch people comb through old documents and parse interviews for clues to the nominees' positions on high-profile constitutional questions, I'm struck by how little attention has been given to one of the biggest problems in America's judicial system: the enormous cost and creativity-killing pace of ordinary civil cases.
In my years doing consumer reporting, I watched every American industry find ways to do things better, faster, and cheaper. Today's computers cost less, but are more powerful. Cars got better. Supermarkets offer more for less. Most every business is better.
But not the law business. In law, everything is slow and expensive, and our choices limited.
For $1 I can buy a newspaper, and every day it's different. But try to get a divorce or a simple will for less than $300.
The lawyers defend their fees and snail-like pace, saying, "We've got to make sure you get due process." Glad they're so concerned. But when there's no money in a case, people have trouble getting a lawyer, let alone getting due process. When there is money, lawyers even insist on undue process. In the O.J. Simpson trial, they even quibbled about the jewelry the other lawyers wore.
Other businesses pad bills, too, but competition limits it. There's less competition in law because lawyers outlawed competition from outside their profession -- they prosecute paralegals who offer cheaper alternatives, calling it "unauthorized practice of law." And they are all bound by rules of procedure, drafted by lawyers and, for the federal courts, issued by the Supreme Court, that call for volumes of paper and make lots of work -- lucrative work, if you're a lawyer.
Civil cases usually take years. It almost makes me feel sorry for the people who sue me. A guy in Philadelphia who said I damaged his reputation had to wait four years just to get me into court.
The essence of my story was that Irwin Rogal, a dentist, ran a dental "mill," telling people (including me, after he examined me for a "20/20" story) we had jaw problems, and then charging big bucks for dubious "treatments." In his lawsuit, he claimed he had not recommended treatment to me.