One of the true gems of the Internet is TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design), a nonprofit that invites luminaries from a wide variety of fields to give brief presentations about their signature ideas. A quick googling of "Best TED Talks" is well worth the hours of education and inspiration that will ensue.

I was thus disappointed to see that TED invited Philip K. Howard to talk about "Four ways to fix a broken legal system."

I have debunked Mr. Howard’s work before (see my thoughts on his "Life Without Lawyers," his "health courts," and his claims about public support for tort reform). The bulk of his talk presents more of the same argument-by-anecdotes and generalized assertions that don’t withstand a moment’s scrutiny. Despite his claim around the 14:00 mark, I can safely assure my readers that we, as a society, do in fact still have seesaws, swingsets, and jungle gyms. Moreover, his overall argument that these problems are so insidious that you don’t even notice them is, to me, unpersuasive.

About halfway through, Mr. Howard moves onto his four propositions, which are:

  1. Judge law mainly by its effect on society, not individual situations
  2. Trust in law is an essential condition of freedom. Distrust skews behavior towards failure
  3. Law must set boundaries protecting an open field of freedom, not intercede in all disputes
  4. To rebuild boundaries of freedom, two changes are essential: simplify the law and restore authority to judges and officials to apply law.

To call these propositions "vague" is an understatement.

That said, I generally agree with the first three. Indeed, it seems the irony of Mr. Howard’s first proposition was lost on him; although his talk only mentions the former, for each funny story of a fishing lure with a warning label, there’s a car manufacturer that bragged about avoiding a recall and ended up needlessly and carelessly endangering millions of people.

The fourth proposition, however, is where Mr. Howard and I diverge. It’s not that I believe the law shouldn’t be simple or that judges shouldn’t apply the law; of course I do. I just don’t believe it how he means it, which is to deny individuals the right to a jury trial.

But there’s a bigger problem with his talk: the "authority to judges and officials to apply law" he claims should be "restored" never existed, and for good reason.

As part of his simplification argument, Mr. Howard gives, as an example, the United States Constitution. It’s "only 16 pages" yet "worked well for over 200 years." Let’s take a look at the Seventh Amendment thereto:

In Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.

(See the link for primary sources on the Amendment.)

I don’t know what Mr. Howard thinks the words "common law" and "rules of the common law" mean there, but to the Framers of the Constitution, "common law" referred to hundreds of years of confusing — and sometimes contradictory — English court opinions.

So much for simplification.

But simplification isn’t really what Mr. Howard wants; he wants to get rid of "the right of trial by jury."

That’s not "rebuilding" freedom, nor is it "restoring" the way the Founders intended the civil justice system to work. It is a rescission of the freedoms guaranteed by the Seventh Amendment, which expressly preserved the same right to jury trial that was embodied in the Magna Carta and was recognized long before.

Indeed, the English "common law" of which the Framers were so enamored did not give judges any "authority" to usurp the fact-finding role of the jury. Mr. Howard claims that he wants to give judges the power "to apply law," but they have always had that power — what Mr. Howard really wants is to give judges the power to determine facts, a power that the Framers of the Constitution expressly denied them.

Mr. Howard doesn’t want to fix the legal system, he wants to break it.

If you have been seriously injured, contact a personal injury lawyer.