Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Are "out-of-town lawyers" a problem for rural residents, or a benefit to them?

That story out of Zanesville, Ohio, is good for another post, this one about legal representation in rural places. The local lawyer for defendant Muskingum County, Mr. Landes, plays the "out of town" card in referring to the plaintiffs' Washington, DC, lawyers whose civil rights-based suit against Zanesville and Muskingum County resulted in a recent $11 million plaintiffs' verdict.

Here's an excerpt from the NYT story in which Landes suggests the big-city lawyers' self interest:
Mr. Landes characterized the plaintiffs’ legal team as “out-of-town lawyers” who saw the chance of reaping huge legal fees.

Reed Colfax, a member of the Washington legal team, Relman and Dane, noted that the jury found evidence of racial discrimination, adding it would be difficult to overlook racism in a case where city water was extended “to the last white house.”

Moreover, he said, the state attorney general, Nancy Rogers, supported the suit and praised the judgment.
The legal fees are likely to run into millions of dollars, but they will have to be approved by the court.

This part of the story goes to one of my perennial questions about law and rural livelihoods: do rural folk get "less justice" because of the relative shortage of local lawyers, especially those with specialized knowledge of topics such as civil rights or immigration, to take up their causes? In this case, the answer seems to be "no" -- perhaps because the case was attractive enough to get taken up by those big city lawyers. In the many disputes and injustices that we don't learn of because they don't generate litigation or any other form of resolution -- and because they involve out-of-sight, out-of-mind rural places-- the answer is probably "yes."

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