Wednesday, March 18, 2009

A Call for Citizen Courts

It stands as a fundamental principle of justice that we cannot entrust one party to unilaterally judge its disputes with other parties. This poses a problem for the resolution of disputes between a State and those subjected to its legal jurisdiction. How impartially can agents of the State, acting as the judges of its courts, decide such disputes? "Not well enough," citizens and residents might worry. It thus looks at least unwise, and arguably unjust, to give federal authorities exclusive jurisdiction over disputes that call for applying the U.S. Constitution.

If we view the U.S. Constitution as a contact—a standard form agreement offered on a take-it-or-leave-it basis by an awesomely powerful government to a comparatively powerless individual—we cannot help but note the glaring inequity of letting only federal authorities decide questions of federal power. No just court would enforce a standard form agreement between grossly unequal parties, imposed by one on the other under conditions that raise serious doubts about the offeree's consent, that lets the all-powerful offeror alone decide disputes arising under the agreement. A clause reading, "I have the sole power to interpret this agreement," reeks too much of substantive unconscionability to win a court's approval. Indeed, the patent unfairness of such a clause cannot help but raise procedural doubts about whether the parties bargained for an exchange at all, undermining the enforceability of the entire agreement.

Happily, we can easily read the U.S. Constitution to avoid the vice of self-judgment. Its plain text by no means mandates that only federally employed judges can decide the scope of federal power. . . . We thus remain at complete liberty to adopt this remedy for self-judgment: Decide disputes between the federal government and other parties under the same arbitration procedures that private parties customarily use in deciding their contractual disputes. In other words, we should establish Citizen Courts.

A Citizen Court would arise at the option of any party to a legal dispute with the federal government being heard by a federal court. Each party—including the federal one—would choose one judge. Those two judges would then agree on a third. Together, the panel of three judges would decide the parties' dispute. Rather than leaving questions about the power of the federal government solely in the hands of federal agents, therefore, a Citizen Court would rely on judges to which the disputants have consented. A Citizen Court would help to remedy the partiality of federal courts and, thus, would offer more justifiable judgments.

[NB: The foregoing comes, after various edits, from Part III.B.3.c. of Graduated Consent Theory, Explained and Applied, Chapman University School of Law, Legal Studies Research Paper Series, Paper No. 09-13 (March 2009) [PDF].]

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