Well, This Is a Switch: Senator Warren Accuses Judges of Bowing to Corporate Interests

The courts are the last safeguard of a democracy that works for people, not corporations—and Sen. Elizabeth Warren doesn't want to see them go the way of Congress.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren questions federal financial regulators about Wall Street reform on Nov. 9. (Photo: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Nov 10, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Rachel Kraus is the senior social media manager for TakePart. She has managed the An Inconvenient Truth community since 2013.

First she took on the banks. Now she’s lambasting the lobbyists. It looks like Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s next target will be federal courts, where the rich seem to play by a different set of rules.

Addressing hundreds gathered at an American Civil Liberties Union event not more than an hour after she landed on the Los Angeles tarmac, Warren leapfrogged from the issue of money and influence in Congress and turned her formidable gaze to the résumés of federal judges.

“Look closely at the composition of the federal bench today, and you will see a striking lack of professional diversity,” Warren said on Sunday night.

Only 11 of the United States’ 850 federal judges have experience from outside either the corporate or the prosecutorial world, Warren said, and that big business background makes many judges unfit to administer justice for people who are more likely to work at a Walmart than to own one. These judges might lack the experience or the empathy to rule fairly on issues that concern the “voiceless,” as Warren put it.

“A bench where judges who have represented corporations make up the majority…that’s a tilted playing field,” Warren said.

The outcome of that tilt can be seen in the disproportionate realities in prisons, the endgame of all those decisions that judges make. Black defendants are 30 percent more likely to be imprisoned than white defendants for the same crime, according to a major study by law professors from Harvard University, the University of Chicago, and the University of Pennsylvania. A slew of studies back up Warren’s point: Our federal courts are partial to the rich, and the American public deserves better.

Warren usually, and often, employs this “tilted playing field” analogy to describe the disproportionate influence the rich have in Congress or the financial system. But after beginning her speech with the harried concession that “the game is rigged in Congress,” Warren’s focus on the judicial system seemed to carry more significance than simply catering to the crowd of lawyers. In light of her blunt opening, her ensuing declaration that “the courts are the last protectors of those without power or influence” sounded more like a hopeful Hail Mary.

Maintaining a strong and independent justice system with sustained political pressure from the people, Warren said, “that’s our best hope for preventing the corporate takeover of the courts”—and perhaps American democracy too.