Last night, I watched Hot Coffee, a documentary that’s extremely critical of the tort reform movement. It occurred to me a long time ago that the civil court system is one of the few avenues by which regular people can seek redress against the rich and powerful, especially against corporations. The others are by voting for politicians who are pro-regulation and consumer rights, through organized labor, and in more recent times, by publicizing your cause on the Internet.

Corporate interests consistently work to undermine those channels to insulate themselves from being held accountable by regular people. Hot Coffee makes it clear exactly how business interests have spent tons of money to weaken the court system and even eliminate it entirely through binding arbitration clauses in contracts.

These practices are fundamentally undemocratic, and the money that has been spent on them has an effect that distorts the legal system in a way that is profoundly negative for regular citizens. Businesses spend huge sums to elect judges who will rule in their favor in civil cases and more importantly, will uphold state legislation that caps the damages that can be awarded in civil trials. Those same judges are consistently right wing on every social issue imaginable, and tend to take a narrow view of civil rights as well. Corporations spending money to expand and protect damage caps for plaintiffs are keeping people like Radley Balko in business when it comes to the rights of defendants in criminal proceedings as well.

Most importantly, the documentary shows how the corporations built public support for laws that almost nobody would be in favor of if they actually understood how they worked. It’s a must-watch. It’s airing on HBO now, and will be available on Netflix sometime in the future, I guess.